The Mission - Ennio Morricone
When, in 1986 Goldcrest Films released "the Mission", it was widely expected to be the hit of the year. The film's credentials promised much: the director was Roland Joffre whose only other film had won three Oscars and which many thought should have taken the award for best film; the screenplay was written by Robert Bolt, two-time Oscar winner for "Doctor Zhivago" and "A Man for all Seasons" as well as "Lawrence of Arabia"; the two leads, Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, were at the height of their first flushes of success; and the seeming final gold plated guarantee of success was that the producer was David Puttnam, recipient of the 1981 "best film" Academy Award for "Chariots of Fire" as well as producing"Local Hero" and "The Killing Fields". Although it won the much coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes, the film was a flop, though a creditable failure. The movie, set in 1750, tells the story of the indigenous population in the Brazilian jungles - the Guarani- as they are sacrificed by the Jesuits on behalf of Spain and the Catholic Church to Portuguese rule and inevitable slavery. This is a tragedy of epic proportions that needed to be told. However, the sub-plot is a ridiculous story of fratricide and infidelity culminating in a sequence wherein repentant slaver de Niro performs a penance by making a barefoot trek to the village of the Guarani, dragging all of his armour and weaponry behind him in a huge rope net, and which finishes with him climbing a rock face immediately to the right of a giant waterfall, symbolically cleansing his soul.
The film would have been forgotten as are many would-be epic blockbusters, were it not for Morricone's music. In many listener polls the soundtrack - particularly the tune "Gabriel's Oboe" - has been voted the top film soundtrack of all time - except in the US and UK whose preferences veer towards John Williams' heavier anthems.It's not an English language aversion though, as it was voted top movie soundtrack by a mile in Australia in 2013.
It's the subtly naturalistic way in which Morricone expresses and brings together the two cultures - the one an idealised vision of Christian love and sacrifice (the oboe theme) and the other based on the rhythms of the indigenous music of the Guarani - that makes this music unique. The two themes are brought together in the overture style track 1 from the soundtrack album "On Earth as it is in Heaven" as per the link, but nowhere on vinyl (or on youtube) can you find the version, preceded by the beautiful "Misere" that you get at the end of the film as the credits start to role. Except that is, at the end of the full version of the film that IS on youtube but involves a pretty big spoiler. If you want to hear it - and I recommend it, click in on exactly two hours and zero seconds into the movie here:
The film reflects on the tragedy of European religious imperialism in the Americas, while still offering some small hope for the future in the form of the purity and love within the human spirit as expressed in the Guarani's Christian choral music and their pre-fall state of grace.
If you want a fulfilling picture of the noble savage versus the ravages of the West, go for John Boorman's trashier, less ambitious "Emerald Forest". But if you want music that is uplifting yet articulates this continuing tragedy, it's "The Mission" everytime.