Jan. 13, 2006

The Mission (1986)
Grade: 62/100

Director: Roland Joffe
Stars: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson

What it's about. Set circa 1758. A Jesuit mission in Brazil provides a haven for Indians. The colonists seek to seize the mission, enslave the Indians, and reduce the power of the Church. Jesuit leader Jeremy Irons will not resist, but his student, Robert De Niro, leads the Indians against the settlers.

How others will see it. This beautifully filmed story is something of a downer, and it movies along too slowly for those who require immediate entertainment. But The Mission should be of interest to intellectuals from the fields of anthropology, religion, history, and photography. And it does feature one of America's most famous actors, Robert De Niro.

How I felt about it. A good movie is often based on conflict, and while tension is often lacking, conflict is not. Conflict is what The Mission is all about.

The Jesuits seek to Christianize the Indians. In practice, the Indians change their economy, rather than their religion. They are educated, learn skills, and absorb Western culture. But they also remain Indians.

Their socialistic communes within the mission prove economically competitive against certain brutal, capitalistic trades that benefit from slave labor. In cynical, racist fashion, the colonists seek redress from their European-based governments: Banish the Jesuits and take slaves.

Because this is a movie, the Jesuit leader Irons is practically a Saint. The primary force against the Jesuits, Don Cabeza (played by Chuck Low, dubbed by Fred Melamed) is a contemptible, hate-filled jerk who is clearly after his own interests.

In between, we have Robert De Niro, a passionate man whose determination can lead either to good or evil acts, depending upon his environment. Also on the fence is Ray McAnally, a magistrate sent to settle the conflict between the Jesuits and colonists.

McAnally is well aware of the right thing to do: leave the missions alone. But, he is also a practical man. The Jesuits have little political power, because they are opposed by the king of Portugal. And unlike the colonists, the Jesuits have no army.

Where does this leave the Indians? The children love the missions, which in turn (at least in this movie) respects, motivates, and educates them. The adults also see the use of the missions, in the form of technology and trade goods. The problem the Indians face is that the Jesuits are not a true representative of white authority. The colonists want to take and not share.

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