A lovely, engaging production, this 1700′s-set drama has two men, a devout priest and a former mercenary, defending a makeshift mission in South America that becomes a political hot topic between Spain and Portugal. The opening scene sets the stakes for all the other characters (and factions) in the film; a priest, who had headed into the jungle in an effort to “save” an indigenous tribe, is tied to a cross and sent over a waterfall. Spain sees a tribe of savage butchers that must be eradicated. The slave traders see a potential source of revenue. The mercenaries working for the slave traders see an easy target. But one Jesuit priest sees this as a challenge; alone, he braves the treacherous landscape surrounding the tribe and humbles himself before them with his oboe, earning their respect. He, along with a redemptive mercenary, build facilities for the tribe that allow for education, irrigation, and peace through religious fortitude. However, a treaty between Spain and Portugal threatens the sovereignty of the mission, and the two philosophically different men must defend their work, as well as the people they’ve affected, with their intellect, their perseverance, and their lives.
This film won the Palm D’or at Cannes, as well as the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and its qualifications for the latter are instantly apparent; the jungles, as well as the mid-1700s settlements, are rendered with a hypnotic, earthy glow that visualizes the “fish-out-of-water” element of these European men in the South American wilderness. In all superficial aspects, the film is rock-solid; the music is a unique cacophony by Ennio Morricone, the art direction is appropriately dirty and primitive, and the makeup and costumes perfectly evoke a life in the middle of the harsh jungle. The acting is also top-notch, with no less than the perennially unfettered Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro (mournful and tragic as the regret-ridden mercenary) as the two leads. Liam Neeson gets a surprisingly large role as yet another priest in the mission, and Aidan Quinn (who, unfortunately, does not share screen time with his Michael Collins and Unknown costar Neeson) is appropriately foppish and scared as DeNiro’s beleaguered younger brother. Director Roland Joffe once again, as in The Killing Fields, is able to take these recognizable faces and put them in an environment where you not only forget about their other work, but are immersed in the obvious efforts they put into the production. DeNiro, in particular, engages in stuntwork and some obviously extremely uncomfortable situations that are all the more impressive given his huge marquee status during this time. Joffe is also adept at highlighting the threat of violent death as the nightmare flip-side to a slow, drawn out death in the jungle; there is somehow more dignity in being absorbed by the earth in the middle of nowhere than being enslaved or gunned down by soulless fellow men.
The themes of nature vs. nurture, the jungle vs. civilization, and humanity vs. politics are very well laid out, visually and aurally. Where the film falters a little bit is it’s overly metaphorical and heavy-handed screenplay. It is yet another grand, overcooked screenplay where the points being made overwhelm the intimacy and humanity of the characters. When you have actors like DeNiro, Irons, and Neeson rendering such scenes, the material is able to sing; one minor scene, with Irons and Neeson poking fun at DeNiro’s cooking, is so adorable and relatable that it humanizes much of what comes before and after it. However, whenever the screenplay shifts towards side characters, such as the corrupt, grotesquely overweight Spanish governor and an elegant Papal emissary sent to evaluate the mission, the broad nature of the strokes used to tell the story become more obvious and boring. The governor, in particular, is painted as such a cartoony, Snidely Whiplash-esque villain (he is played by Morrie from Goodfellas…seriously), that it devalues and trivializes the threat his greed presents to both the priests and natives of the mission. The age-old Avatar/Dances With Wolves/Pocahantas/Ferngully narrative of the foreign invaders teaming up with the natives to preserve their existence only reaches its peaks of obviousness on these digressions, but it is enough to take some of the luster off of the otherwise impeccably produced and rendered final product.
Recommended to fans of DeNiro or Irons, more lush, visually dominant historical dramas or of Roland Joffe’s work (The Killing Fields, Fat Man and Little Boy). While the whole is not as good as the sum of its parts (the score, the acting, the cinematography, the mood), it is still indicative of a fascinating, haunting production.