Fernando Ghia, 69; Italian Film, TV Producer Known Best for ‘Mission’

Times Staff Writer

Fernando Ghia, a prominent Italian film and television producer known for his tenacity in bringing the award-winning 18th century-set drama “The Mission” to the screen, has died. He was 69.

Ghia, who had cancer, died June 1 in Rome, the London Independent wrote. The paper reported that Ennio Morricone’s memorable score for “The Mission” filled a packed church in Rome at Ghia’s funeral and was a fitting tribute.

A native of Rome who launched his movie career in the late 1950s, the dashing Ghia worked briefly as an actor and had a stint as an agent with the William Morris Agency before launching a working partnership with his mentor, Italian producer Franco Cristaldi.

As head of production for Cristaldi, Ghia made numerous films, including Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord,” Marco Bellocchio’s “China Is Near” and Francesco Rosi’s “The Mattei Affair,” the last a docudrama about the death of an Italian industrialist. Among Ghia’s solo credits as a producer is “Lady Caroline Lamb,” a 1972 period drama written and directed by Robert Bolt.

Ghia, who -- when he was an agent -- was taught English by actor Albert Finney, spent more than a decade in Hollywood before returning to Italy in the late 1980s.


After he founded Pixit Productions in Rome, his credits included the 1997 television miniseries “Nostromo,” an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s epic story of political upheaval, greed and romance in turn-of-the-20th-century South America.

But Ghia may be best known for “The Mission,” the 1986 winner of the Palme d’Or for best picture at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film co-starred Jeremy Irons as a Jesuit priest who goes into the Brazilian jungle to build a mission and bring God to the indigenous people, and Robert DeNiro as a slave trader who is later converted and joins Irons at his mission. As The Times’ then-movie critic Sheila Benson wrote, a “dilemma of conscience is at the film’s heart.”

This conflict occurs when the Jesuit missions fall into the hands of the slave-trading Portuguese and Rome orders the Jesuits to leave.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, the movie won an Oscar for Chris Menges’ stunning cinematography.

Ghia had spent more than a decade trying to bring the epic drama to the screen.

A single paragraph in a 1972 Time magazine cover story about the Jesuit order prompted Ghia to begin researching the fate of 31 utopian, self-governing cooperative communities established by the Jesuits more than 250 years ago among the Guarani Indians in the Iguazu Falls area, where present-day Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet.

By 1975, Ghia had lined up Bolt, whose screenplay credits included “Lawrence of Arabia,” “A Man for All Seasons” and “Dr. Zhivago,” to write a script and had made a deal with Paramount for the development money.

To persuade Bolt to participate, Ghia took him to South America to tour the ruins of the great Jesuit missions, saving for last the breathtaking falls, which are more than 40 feet taller than Niagara Falls.

“He sat and stared at them for an hour, until the light was gone,” Ghia recalled in a 1986 interview with The Times. “Then he said, ‘It’s as if God for a day had decided to be a production designer.’ ”

Although Paramount loved Bolt’s script, the studio apparently doubted its commercial viability and passed. While producing other movies, Ghia continued to search for financing.

In 1984, he finally landed a deal with Goldcrest Films & Television Ltd. of London and with producer David Puttnam, who brought in Roland Joffe as director.

“The problem with ‘The Mission,’ ” Puttnam, who shared producing credit with Ghia, told the Toronto Star in 1986, “was it didn’t fit any of the formulas, although God knows Fernando must have lived through 17 different formulas since he started this.”

During 16 weeks of shooting on location in Colombia and at the falls, the cast and crew dealt with 110-degree days, humidity, torrential rains, floods, deadly snakes, mosquitoes and amoebic dysentery.

When “The Mission” finally reached theaters in 1986, The Times’ Charles Champlin, who had first reported the filmmaker’s plans for it in 1975, wrote: “Ghia is remarkable in his patient persistence and in his vision of the producer and the medium.”

“The thing that’s important to me,” Ghia told Champlin after the movie’s release, “is that there should be a social commitment. We provide entertainment, but we should also provide food for thought.

“Cinema,” he added, “was once a ritual celebration, like the Mass, a celebration in the dark of imagery and sound and emotion. I think that day will come again. Now we are only labels -- children’s films, funny films -- and cinema has gone down the drain. We’ve dismantled film into a bag of tricks.

“I want to make projects that recapture the celebration,” he said, “and when it happens, you won’t hear of age groups or marketing. The risks will be rewarded.”

A complete list of Ghia’s survivors, which include a young son, Sebastiano, was not available.