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Mission, The (1986, Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons)

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One of the most ambitious British films of recent times, Roland Joffé’s follow-up to The Killing Fields is an epic drama set in 18th century South America. ‘Visually The Mission must be one of the most magnificent British films ever made,’ The Times wrote after the David Puttnam-produced film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1986. The film was also a winner at the following year’s Oscars, with cinematographer Chris Menges the worthy winner of an Academy Award for his work on this breathtaking movie.

Shot entirely on location in Colombia and the Iguazu Falls in Argentina – a stunning 200ft waterfall which features in the film’s dramatic opening scene – the action takes place in 1750. The Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms have decided to reallocate land they’ve colonised in South America to protect their slave trading interests and to diminish the influence of the Jesuit missionaries who are converting native Indians in the region. The Vatican sends an emissary, Cardinal Altamirano (the late RAY MCANALLY), to decide whether the missions should be disbanded. Opposing the colonialists are two Jesuit priests, Gabriel (JEREMY IRONS) and a reformed slave trader, Mendoza (ROBERT DE NIRO), who run a co-operative farming mission with Guarani Indians in San Carlos. Cardinal Altamirano must decide whether this successful mission should be handed over to the brutal Portuguese.

Filming in the jungle was a logistical nightmare on the $23million film, with director Joffé collapsing on the set from dehydration at one point. Despite these difficulties – and the imminent collapse of production company Goldcrest – The Mission emerged as an artistic triumph. ‘The film is bold, beautiful and brilliant, an epic achievement,’ the Daily Telegraph said, while The Guardian added, ‘The film seems less of a cultural or political lesson than a simple morality play. Robert Bolt wrote it, and it clearly seeks to combine the kind of arguments which sustained A Man For All Seasons with the cinematic bravura of something like Apocalypse Now.’ Finally, writing in the Evening Standard, Alexander Walker noted, ‘Movies about the damage that Christianity does to people who worship other gods aren’t exactly uncommon. But The Mission is an uncommonly good one.’

production details
France – UK | 126 minutes | 1986

Director: Roland Joffé
Script: Robert Bolt

cast
Robert De Niro as Rodrigo Mendoza
Jeremy Irons as Father Gabriel
Ray McAnally as Altamirano
Aidan Quinn as Felipe Mendoza
Liam Neeson as Fielding
Cherie Lunghi as Carlotta
Ronald Pickup as Hontar
Chuck Low as Cabeza
Bercelio Moya as Indian Boy
Sigifredo Ismare as Witch Doctor
Daniel Berrigan as Sebastian