Tuesday, 7 August 2007

The Mission (1986)

Here is a film that comes under that rare category, the school visit to the cinema.

I say rare because nowadays in the era of DVD it is so much easier to see the latest film within just a matter of months of its release. Even then, back in 1987, such a thing was not uncommon: I can remember seeing Roland Joffe's previous film The Killing Fields on video in a classroom with the rest of the 4th Year in R.E. class. Then on wetter days, when most of the school were confined to the main hall instead of the playground at lunchtime, we would watch on video such (very) variable entertainment as Ghostbusters, Tron, The Toy, or The Goonies.

But to see The Mission at the Odeon Colchester was, as I say, something of a novelty. Significantly for me, it was also my first visit to the cinema to see any kind of film in 6 years or more.

Cinema in those days for me was very much on the back burner. Before The Mission, the only kind of films I had ever seen or taken an interest in were largely "fantasy" oriented: Star Wars, Disney, etc. At home I remember my family also liked to keep up a healthy collection of war films recorded off the telly, using the relatively new medium of video.

At first, when I was told we were going to see "The Mission", I thought I would have to suffer listening to a pop group of some kind, which I had heard fellow pupils (to call them "friends" would be a misnomer) talking about, chiding each other about their favourite pop groups as if they were football teams competing against one another. Adolescent years at school were, as they are for most of us, slightly confusing, painful and revealing years in which one's sense of identity is eventually forged, and shyness got the better of me at St. Benedict's.

To see a "serious" film therefore, set on our own planet in a non-fantasy and largely mature fashion, was something of a breakthrough, as well as a welcome escape from the everyday stresses of school life. Before the film began we trotted our way in, some of the kids threw sweets at the screen before the start of the show, and we sat down to watch some of the trailers and ads - which I remember included one for a Harrison Ford film, The Mosquito Coast. I found a seat out of the way of most other people to the side - a trend I have tended to lean towards ever since.

The main feature film which duly followed that afternoon wasn't perhaps the greatest film to bowl me over, but there were nonetheless certain indelible impressions that stayed with me.

The strongest one I suppose, is the image of those waterfalls, which dominate the screen in the opening titles. Indeed, the sight of a martyred missionary priest being tied to a crucifix and sent over the edge to his death had a powerful enough resonance for it to adorn the film's poster (see above). The first, exquisitely beautiful sight of these waterfalls was like being transported to another world, VERY far removed from the Odeon Screen 3.

The locations were in deepest South America, still under threat from outside forces even at the time of filming, where Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) atones for the death of one of his Jesuit colleagues by climbing up the rockface of the falls himself to spread the message of Christianity. He wins the natives over by playing his oboe in the middle of the jungle, in a scene which is a gift for composer Ennio Morricone, who duly obliges with a beautifully lyrical theme combined with harpsichord and orchestra. Indeed, his whole score is a marvellous mixture of all his musical influences, from his own Catholicism to the heart-pounding tension of the Spaghetti Westerns that made him famous. Shamefully, he has never won an Oscar for his music in all his 40 years of composing.

The story perhaps took second place to the visual impact of the film, but that is not to say the plot is uninteresting: being in a Catholic school, the subject - of Jesuit priests struggling against slave traders to bring the beauty of Christianity to the South American jungle - was of course a very relevant one. Added to that was of course a strong environmental message which still applies today, of the rainforests being continually plundered by modern technology and economics.

The main actors in the film I had no real knowledge of, save for a vague awareness that Jeremy Irons was in Brideshead Revisited on ITV. Robert De Niro was, I later discovered, something of a big name in the film world, and therefore took top billing in the film as Rodrigo Mendoza, the slave trader who turns to the cloth as a mark of penance after murdering his brother (Aidan Quinn) in a fit of jealousy over the woman they both love (Cherie Lunghi).

Also in this distinguished international cast was a young up-and-coming Irish actor, Liam Neeson - yet to make a breakthrough in films such as Schindler's List, but full of energy, enthusiasm and commitment to his craft - and fellow Irishman Ray McAnally, whose face is the first we see on the screen as narrator and also presiding judge over the ultimate fate of the Jesuit mission.

That fate, is a tragic, cynical, desperately sad but also extremely powerful finale in which the Guarani jungle territory is given over to the Portuguese and Spanish soldiers to ransack and destroy. But the Jesuit priests, who have built the community and grown to love it and its people, do not want to see it die, and remain to face up to - and in some cases engage in - the fighting to the bitter end, sacrificing their lives. Morricone underscores this gut-wrenching finale with a powerful ending on one single drumbeat as the flames engulf the huts and the church and the floating wreckage on the river.

It is an impressive film indeed, that can silence an audience of noisy 15 year olds on a school trip, and I can remember most of us being completely spellbound by the experience.

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films