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DVD Review: The Mission

By Glenn Abel

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photo Roland Joffe, the hot young director of "The Killing Fields," faced Robert Bolt, the master screenwriter of "Lawrence of Arabia," and told him what he thought of his latest script.

"The Mission," a true story of genocide in the wilds of South America in the 1750s, was "very much a chamber piece -- a morality play," the director told the screenwriter. The Indians who were massacred by Europeans were barely depicted. The script had to have flesh-and-blood Indians.

"Well, good," said Bolt the Briton, his thick, rolling voice slowed by a stroke. "Go and find them."

Joffe did just that. In Argentina, he located the few descendants of the Guarani, the tribe decimated so long ago, and found them living an impoverished gypsy lifestyle. But Joffe needed Indians with a strong sense of tribal pride. He found them in the Cauca region of southwest Colombia.

The Waunana lived a near-Stone Age existence, trading along a major river. Joffe was the first white man they'd seen, the director recalls. Allowed to stay in their village, he was directed to sleep among the women and children.

"You're not a man," the tribesmen told Joffe. "You're a ghost."

Joffe spent two weeks with the Waunana, then reported back to Bolt, who recast the script. The Indians, who had never seen a movie, had agreed to act in "The Mission," trusting Joffe enough to travel to a shooting site on the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, more than 1,000 miles away, via boat, train and plane.

Some of the Waunana feared the worst. The electricity would be strong; the guns and arrows real. The rumor was the white men would murder the Indians and eat them. One tribesman asked Joffe, "Isn't that what your people do -- kill us?"

Warner has released Joffe's 1986 "The Mission" in a two-disc special edition (retail $26.99). The film, best known for its Oscar-winning cinematography, is presented in the original widescreen (2.35:1). Images appear crisp and damage-free, with deep blacks in contrast to the coursing whites of the waterfalls and the nitrogen-rich greens.

Sound has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1. The mix keeps most of the action in the front speakers, with too few atmospherics finding their way to the rear. Bolt's dialogue comes across loud and clear above the roar of the river. Ennio Morricone's famous score sounds appropriately mystical and majestic.

As good as this transfer is, those who remember the dazzling theatrical presentation may come away somewhat disappointed. "The Mission's" natural habitat is the big screen.

Joffe tells the tale of making "The Mission" in a commentary that is at least as interesting as the film itself. Disc 2 features a fascinating -- but flat and grainy -- BBC documentary about the production and the Waunana. (No other extras appear on the second disc, apparently added solely to preserve the quality of the film on Disc 1). Joffe's commentary was recorded in the past year or so, while the hourlong "Omnibus" docu hails from 1986.

Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons star in the story of a reformed slave trader (De Niro) and a Jesuit priest who live with the doomed Guarani in a mountain mission. The Catholic church yields to acute political pressure as the region comes under Portuguese rule, abandoning the mission and its Indian converts. The priests and the Guarani must choose the sword or the cross as European enforcers close in.

In real life, Joffe did have his Indian actors choose whether they would be warriors or prayers in the final scene. The split was about 50-50, as it would be in real life, Joffe speculates. The Waunana were amazing naturalistic actors, he says. "I barely directed these wonderful people." Irons learned to speak their language.

Joffe has a lot of interesting things to say about the hardships of shooting in the wild. The movie was filmed in Colombia and Argentina, with river scenes often switching back and forth between the locales. Crews hauled cameras up cliffs and fought to keep some kind of continuity on fast-moving rivers. Explosives became moist, refusing to ignite. The heart-stopping waterfall scenes were captured by crane.

Joffe says De Niro's work, criticized at the time of release, is in fact among his best. The crew and Indians were frightened of the actor but came to care for him after the scene in which his born-again mercenary carries all of his slave-trading armor and weapons up a mountain, Christ-like, for penance. De Niro didn't flinch, Joffe reports, even though he had to haul the load barefoot, up a slick, rocky path populated by snakes and scorpions. The tears of pain the actor cries at the end of the scene were real, Joffe says: "How many times have we seen De Niro cry?"

One 11-year-old Indian became so close to De Niro that he pleaded to be allowed to return to New York with him. (De Niro's landlord, who does a great job playing a villain in the film, probably would not have approved.)

Joffe says prejudice against the Indians became clear during the shoot, with hatred emanating from the Colombian soldiers guarding the set. Another edgy dynamic: The English crew's protectors in Argentina had been prisoners of Britain during the Fauklands war.

The film was about prejudice and its corrosive effects, Joffe says in the commentary. But then, Joffe cites dozens of things the movie is about: the inevitability of events, consequences, ethnic cleansing, the pain of love, death -- (no wonder so many critics were stumped).

Joffe admits his commentary is "stream of consciousness" -- at one point wondering if his audience was still awake -- but he is a splendid storyteller with interesting ideas about man's place in the world. Curious viewers will need both the commentary and the docu to put together the story of "The Mission." Unfortunately, there are no updates on the Waunana aside from Joffe's mention of a foundation set up for their benefit. Remaining extras are sparse and routine.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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