Monday, June 22, 2009

85. British director Roland Joffe’s “The Mission” (1986) (UK): A script for all seasons

The Mission is a movie set in South America delving on the Spanish/Portuguese colonization in the 17th century. Some viewers of the film could consider it to be an interesting treatise on how the Catholic Jesuit priests went about converting the indigenous Guarani population who lived in the environs of present-day Paraguay. To other viewers, the film would be an interesting take on religion versus the state (here the Portuguese and the Spanish), where religion and freedom gets smothered by forces only interested in financial gain. To yet another group of viewers, the film underlines the capacity of indigenous people to fend for themselves in a free world ("I see no difference between this plantation and my own," comments a slave owner in the film, while a Jesuit priest answers emphatically: "That is the difference: This plantation is theirs."). And to many, the film could appear to be a disconnected effort with three heroes, or rather three anti-heroes—a well-meaning Jesuit priest (Jeremy Irons), a slave-trader turned priest (Robert de Niro), and a powerful Cardinal (Ray McAnally), a man who realizes that he is actually a pawn to bigger forces, each gradually sucked into a quicksand of defeat, both spiritual and political.

Having seen The Mission twice after a gap of 20 years, I am convinced that there are two distinct ways to appreciate the film. One way is to appreciate the film’s technical (visual and aural) splendor, well appreciated separately at the Cannes film festival and at the Oscars. The Mission won the Cannes film festival’s highest honors: the Golden Palm for director Roland Joffe and another technical grand prize for Joffe. The film won a solitary Oscar for its remarkable photography by cinematographer Chris Menges. The British Academy (BAFTA) too chose to honor the music of Morricone, the acting of Ray McAnally (who played Cardinal Altmirano) and finally, the editing. These accolades underline the first approach, I suggest for evaluating the film.

The other approach would be to look at the depth of a remarkable story and script of Robert Bolt, which is based on historical facts, an effort distinctly lauded by the Golden Globes and the Evening Standard film awards (both chosen by media persons, not film industry personnel). Yes, the original script is one of the final formidable works of the screenplay writer who gave us the existential Lawrence of Arabia, and the remarkable scripts of Ryan’s Daughter, Dr Zhivago, and A Man for All Seasons. The Golden Globes honored The Mission’s script (Robert Bolt) and its music (the maestro Ennio Morricone). The Evening Standard Film Awards honored McAnally and Bolt. This latter set of awards underscores the second approach I suggest to appreciate the film.

The first approach to appreciate the film would be to acknowledge Joffe’s ability in choosing the major actors, Menge's ability to capture the natural beauty of the Iguazu falls, Joffe's strong visual metaphors of religious penance of dragging heavy armour up a cliff and the eventual liberation from the emotional baggage, the intelligent editing of the shots of the crucified priest flowing down the falls or even the capturing the silence enveloping a troubled Cardinal in a near-empty church, and finally the magic of Ennio Morricone’s music that provides the core of the film’s strength, a fact that the film reminds its viewers with the symbolic shots of a broken oboe and a shattered violin towards the end. I consider these to be aspects of the movie that are more obvious to appreciate.

The second and more complex approach would be to study the script closely. To appreciate the originality of the marvellous and yet seemingly disconnected script, it is essential to know the mind of writer of the story/script: Robert Bolt. Bolt was born into a strict Methodist family that insisted on attending church three times each Sunday. It was natural that he would revolt and after age 16, when his father allowed him to make up his own mind, he never again attended church. (Not unlike the life of the formidable Ingmar Bergman to whom The Mission’s script has a strange connection, which I will discuss shortly.) Bolt became a Marxist, joined the Communist party, and then quit the party when he was disillusioned. For him, as is evident in his magnificent screenplays, the individual with a strong morality has to face constant conflicts between idealism and society’s requirements of the individual to conform.He went on to write an existential take on T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom for Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. The story/script of The Mission was one of the three works written after a heart stroke that led to partial paralysis in 1979. It was written between his two marriages to Sarah Miles—marriages and a relationship that were reminiscent of the Burton-Taylor double marriages. The script was written at a time when he was physically and psychologically troubled.

Now consider a Leftist who abjured the Church choosing to write a story/script on a very spiritual subject of the Jesuits converting natives of South America into Christianity against the backdrop of Portuguese and Spanish politics of colonization and slavery of the natives. Obviously, for Bolt, the interesting aspect was not religion as much as the moral conflict between the Jesuits and the politics of the colonizers somewhat like his earlier celebrated scripts. A memorable part of Bolt’s script is when the Catholic colonizers, who enslave the Guaranis like animals, arguing and insisting that they don’t have souls. There is evidence that Bolt was egged on to write the passionate script by The Mission’s co-producer Fernando Ghia. The script adds significance when it becomes obvious that the main character is neither the Jesuit priest nor the slave-trader–turned-Jesuit in spite of the casting assuming otherwise and confounding viewers used to relating to equating importance of characters with top billed actors. The center stage is actually left for the visiting Cardinal (played by a lesser known actor) who begins and ends the film.

Yet the director Joffe almost kills Bolt’s script in the final film version possibly trying to elevate the roles of de Niro and Irons above that of McAnally. How else can one explain that the most crucial lines of the film are spoken by McAnally AFTER the long end credits of the film have rolled—not even as a voice over but as regular film! The words are “So, your Holiness, now your priests are dead, and I am left alive. But in truth it is I who am dead, and they who live. For as always, your Holiness, the spirit of the dead will survive in the memory of the living.” Why would Joffe have this appendage? I remember being stunned by the darkened screen full of alphabet soup suddenly coming alive, when most of the audience had trooped out of the cinema hall, under the impression the film was over. Even if it was a post-script, why tag this crucial scene after the end credits—it’s as if Joffe was uncomfortable with Bolt’s canvas and yet did not have the strength to delete the scene or those words and was hiding them from scrutiny. (Evidently there has been a subsequent rethink--please read the postscript.)  Somewhat like director Michael Cacoyannis hiding the crucial reference to contemporary Greek politics, after the end credits, when he made The Trojan Women, to possibly escape the domestic backlash in Greece.

Apparently director Joffe and its co-producer David Puttnam wanted to make a film related to the San Salvador conflict and Bolt and Ghia gave them a script on 17th Century that was quite different in spirit and substance depicting genocide in the wilds of South America in the 1750s.

Bolt, who had earlier in life revolted against Christianity, in this script went on to take a leaf of what Ingmar Bergman did 25 years before him in Through a Glass Darkly (the title is a phrase from the Corinthians chapter) and what Kieslowski a doubtful atheist did six years later in Three colors: Blue weave the elements of Christian love from the same chapter of the Bible, I Corinthians Chapter 13, a chapter on love and maturity read out by the slave trader (de Niro) before he takes up priesthood. Rodrigo Mendoza (de Niro) repeats the words “Though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor and though I give my body to be burned and have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth and love is kind. Love envieth not. Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. But now abideth faith, hope, love... these three. But the greatest of these is love.” These Biblical lines are also pivotal to and read out in another brilliant film: Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Banishment (2007).

I have mentioned the Kieslowski-Blue connection already. Blue was a film that also revolved around an unfinished musical piece of a dead composer and interestingly the widow of the composer picks up the Bible, zeroes in on the Corinthians chapter and suggests adding more flute to the additional music score for completing the composition. Is it a coincidence that another maestro Ennio Morricone, who wrote the absolutely adorable award winning theme music of The Mission, has basically built the composition around oboes and flutes?

Culture critic Michael Medved called the film “anti-religious” because “it focused on cowardly eighteenth-century ecclesiastical officials who sold out idealistic Jesuit missionaries and their converts to profit-minded Portuguese imperialists and slave traders.” The film begins with killing of priests and ends with more of the same. The final end-title is a quote from the Bible "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:5). If this was a contribution of Bolt, it paves the way for more thought about Bolt, the man, rather than Bolt the scriptwriter. Bolt’s script presents a tragedy that resembles Greek tragedies where the downfall of the hero is inevitable. Like Bolt’s script of A Man for all Seasons, the script of The Mission too is about acts of conscience. Director Stanley Kubrick is quoted as having said that The Missionreached deeper into the psyche than words, of that uncommon plant, that endangered species, of the spirit of 1 Corinthians 13”.

For the reflective viewer, the central figure of the film is truly the Cardinal. And this film is clearly an example of Bolt’s brilliance towering over Joffe’s intelligent craftsmanship

P.S. The movies Through a Glass Darkly, Blue, The Banishment and Ryan's Daughter have been reviewed earlier on this blog. In more recent alternate versions of  The Mission, the post-credit sequence discussed above has been reduced to a silent one and the spoken lines that once were spoken in the appended scene, is now included before the credits. Obviously a rethink has taken place, But why retain a silent abbreviated post-credits scene even after the crucial spoken lines were moved within the main movie as it ought to have been in the first place?