Times Film Critic

If you have seen a single billboard for “The Mission” (Plitt Century Plaza), you have some hint of the movie’s most audacious and indelible scene. You’ve also seen the movie’s star.

As the film opens, a martyred and anonymous Jesuit who has attempted to convert a tribe of 18th-Century South American Indians has been crucified and cast into the waters above the great Iguazu Falls for his efforts.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 15, 1986 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 15, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 7 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 11 words Type of Material: Correction
“The Mission” is MPAA-rated PG. The wrong rating was given in Friday’s review.

Slowly, with the river’s gathering speed, he floats toward the edge. Then, in a terrifying camera angle from directly over the lip of the falls, this living crucifix goes straight over--plunging down, like a human dart.

“The Mission” is haunting spectacle, it is serious and passionate and in many ways successful; it provides Jeremy Irons with a chance for his purest and most searing film performance, and it gives Robert De Niro another of those nearly impossible physical challenges he thrives on. But the falls may be what you remember most: They’re “The Mission’s” scene-stealers.

Director Roland Joffe uses their scale and the ferocious implacability of their power as more than a backdrop to this true story--a power struggle between the monarchies of Spain and Portugal in which the fate of the Jesuit order and a nation of Indians rested in the balance. The falls become almost the force of fate: Watching Irons make his first, heart-stopping climb up their slippery rock walls is a visualization of the mettle of those early Jesuits in the face of almost every obstacle.


Then, too, the falls are a pure movie spectacle, impossible to get anywhere but on the very big screen. They take us back, along with a script by Robert Bolt (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “A Man for All Seasons”) to a big-movie era of producers like Sam Spiegel and, now, David Puttnam, here joining Fernando Ghia.

A dilemma of conscience is at the film’s heart, and Bolt goes to some pains that we understand it plainly. Will the papal legate, Altamirano (Ray McAnally), clearly a thoughtful man, side with the Jesuits--who have no intention of abandoning their now self-sufficient converts, the Guarani Indians, or their string of almost Utopian missions--or with the slave-trading Portuguese, into whose territory the missions have now fallen after a readjustment of boundary lines?

And if ordered by Rome to leave, will the Jesuits quit docilely, or cross their own precepts and fight by the side of the Guarani?

Father Gabriel (Irons) heads the Jesuits of the Mission of San Carlos, whose number now includes Rodrigo Mendoza (De Niro), a mercenary and ex-slaver, who is a recent and still hot-headed convert.

In one of the film’s arresting visual allegories, Mendoza climbs the falls’ face with the Jesuit brothers, doggedly dragging behind him the legacy of his deadly past, his sword and all his armor, captured in a net so unwieldy that he might well be dragging a corpse behind him. It is Father Gabriel’s challenge to him, a way for Mendoza to expiate his last deadly sin, the murder of his own brother (Aidan Quinn) in a love triangle with Mendoza’s mistress (Cherie Lunghi).

Action like this--the stunning opening sequence and the inevitable, terrible closing battle--is part of the film’s greatest strength. If so obvious a fact needed proving, it establishes Joffe as a great action director--and his collaboration with cinematographer Chris Menges and editor Jim Clark as one of film’s most felicitous teamings--whether in the super-realism of “The Killing Fields” or “The Mission’s” heightened theatricality.

Where the picture occasionally teeters and only barely rights itself are in its idealized views of the Indians (so pure, so perfect that they are almost without character), its general lack of surprise and in exchanges like Mendoza’s and his lady’s, which require De Niro to say, “So, me you do not love.” These lines would defeat Olivier, and they rout De Niro. It isn’t until his later, clay-smeared scenes of abnegation and introspection that De Niro gets back his footing even a little. Other, even more contemporary-seeming actors, notably Chuck Low as the bald Spanish slave trader, are dreadful.

Narrator McAnally is exceptionally good. As Father Gabriel soothes the possibly dangerous Guarani on their own turf with a tune on his oboe, McAnally’s richly dry voice makes the most of the prelate’s line, “With an orchestra, the Jesuits could have subdued a whole continent.” Daniel Berrigan, the activist Jesuit, has a small role as part of Irons’ devoted group and also served as a general adviser to the film makers on things relative to the Jesuits. Also among Irons’ cadre is lanky, charismatic Irish actor, Liam Neeson, who bears watching.

Among “The Mission’s” strong production credits are Stuart Craig’s extraordinary production design; the sinuous and haunting score by Ennio Morricone, a seduction all its own, and Enrico Sabbatini’s splendid eye for costume detail, down to the rusty black of the Jesuit cassocks.

The question of grace, of nonviolence, of loyalty and faith that are the weft of “The Mission” are not confined to the Jesuits or to the 18th Century. In their postlude, the film makers extend these concerns to today’s priests in South America, and others might include clergy in South Africa and Poland. It is the power of these questions that ultimately sweeps away reservations about the film. “The Mission” becomes a spectacle of conscience.

‘THE MISSION’ A Warner Bros. release of a Goldcrest and Kingsmere presentation of An Enigma production in association with Fernando Ghia. Producers Ghia, David Puttnam. Director Roland Joffe. Screenplay Robert Bolt. Camera Chris Menges. Editor Jim Clark. Music Ennio Morricone. Production design Stuart Craig. Supervising art director Norman Dorme. Art directors George Richardson, John King. Scenic art director Peter Melrose. Second unit camera Robin Vidgeon. Associate producer Iain Smith. With Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Ronald Pickup, Chuck Low, Daniel Berrigan, Monirak Sisowath, Asuncion Ontiveros, Cherie Lunghi.

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned to give special guidance for attendance of children under 13)