ROLAND JOFFÉ FOR THE MISSION (1986)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Oliver Stone for Platoon
Woody Allen for Hannah and Her Sisters
James Ivory for A Room with a View
David Lynch for Blue Velvet
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
Roland Joffé was, for a few years, the Academy’s “it” boy. His luck would run out after only his second feature, but not before delivering a gorgeous lyrical contemplation of the South American landscape. Largely forgotten by Hollywood, who would prefer to stay closer to home, South America still occupies a strong place in the European imagination. Where Werner Herzog depicts the continent as harshly unforgiving, the folly of those fortune hunters who plunge into its interior, Joffé’s film laments the inexorable progress of enough fortune hunters over time. However, in contrast to the urgent social drama of Joffé’s previous film, The Killing Fields, The Mission is a primarily sensory experience of the landscape. The political struggle between Jesuit, Spanish, and Portuguese interests over the fate of the Guarani tribe forms a suitably evocative, if simplistic, framework for the story. This is a film that still finds wonder in the primeval natural forces of river and rainforest that surround the paltry European outposts, aloof beauties that serenely endure the petty human strife. The backbone of this film, Chris Menges’ second Best Cinematography win in three years came for capturing the trance-inducing majesty of the rainforest and the waterfall that pierces its otherwise impenetrable expanse.
Shedding the more topical concerns of The Killing Fields, Joffé shoots for full David Lean epic mode in this production–witness Robert Bolt on screenwriting duty. Bolt’s surprisingly wan narrative has a few highlights, from Ray McAnally’s humane but politically astute cardinal to Jeremy Irons’ spirited (and largely derided) defense of the Guaranis’ humanity. However, the drama of the colonial dispute is told more in the film’s visual language than its stilted dialogue. Ennio Sabbatini’s costumes epitomize the characters’ relationship to the landscape: the Jesuits’ robes, rather than dropping off into inky blots, instead pick up the earth tones of the surrounding landscape. By contrast, the surreal sight of the Spanish soldiers’ opalescent uniforms and powdered wigs against the lush background of the riverbed establishes the pale invaders as antithetical to this world. Stuart Craig and Jack Stephens (following up his sumptuous work in Tess) mount an impressive recreation of the hardy colonial edifices poking out of the forest, and Jim Clark adeptly contrasts the stilted static quality of the dull colonial assemblies against the languorous stretches of time against the waterfall. If there’s one part of the otherwise unimpeachable filmmaking that doesn’t quite work for me, though, it’s Ennio Morricone’s score, which centers on a rapturous central theme but too often gilds the lily with the exuberant choir that too frequently joins in. Even if Joffé never quite found his voice as a storyteller, he still infuses the historical drama with a fantastic aesthetic journey.
The Mission marked the end of Joffé’s brief run as Hollywood’s “it” director. He joined an impressive array of filmmakers on his way out, though. The story of the race was probably the arrival of two filmmakers who would dominate the Oscar landscape into the early 1990s: Oliver Stone, absorbing Joffé’s mojo with his acutely socially conscious Vietnam War drama Platoon, and James Ivory, putting British costume drama firmly on the map with the melancholy-tinged but mostly sanguine adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. However, my personal favorites in the category are Woody Allen, receiving a fourth nomination (whether he wanted it or not) for his sprawling family melodrama Hannah and Her Sisters and David Lynch, following up his more orthodox nomination for The Elephant Man with his gloriously perverse look at small town America in Blue Velvet. Lynch’s sunny depravity and Allen’s cynical romanticism are pretty much polar opposites, making this a tough choice, but this might still be my favorite Woody Allen film, a massive and generous moral examination weaving through the interconnected inhabitants of Allen’s beloved Manhattan.