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THE MISSION – Ennio Morricone

November 19, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Producer David Putnam and director Roland Joffe were seeking to sustain the acclaim of their last collaboration, The Killing Fields (1984), and so recruited renowned screenwriter Robert Bolt to compose a compelling historical drama. The independent British production company Goldcrest Films financed the project, providing a generous budget, and a fine cast was assembled, which included Robert De Niro as Captain Rodrigo Mendoza, Jeremy Irons as Father Gabriel, Ray McAnally as Cardinal Altamirano, Aidan Quinn as Felipe Mendoza, Cherie Lunghi as Carlotta, Ronald Pickup as Don Hatar, Chuck Low as Don Cabeza and Liam Neeson as Father John Fielding. The film offers a classic morality play, which explores the tragic events surrounding the 1750 Treaty of Madrid. The Spanish and Portuguese are warring along the Brazil and Paraguayan border and the treaty ended the conflict by requiring Spain to cede territory south and east of the Rio Uruguay to Portugal. This would require the seven Jesuit missionaries to leave and place the Guarani inhabitants in peril as Portugal, unlike Spain, used slavery to man their plantations. The film opens in 1740 with Jesuit missionary Father Gabriel seeking to convert the Guarani to Catholicism. The opening scene of a Jesuit cast over the waterfall tied to a cross reveals the Guarani’s hostility to outsiders. He is joined by slaver Rodrigo Mendoza who seeks repentance following the murder of his brother, who he caught sleeping with his fiancée. Father Gabriel gains the trust of the Guarani through his oboe playing and they over time convert. Rodrigo finds new meaning to his life, abandons weapons, and commits to joining the priesthood.

All they have gained unravels when Cardinal Altamirano comes to the mission and orders Father Gabriel to honor the treaty and leave. Gabriel refuses and faces excommunication, as he is unwilling to see the Guarani sold into slavery. Sadly Gabriel and Rodrigo part ways as Gabriel eschews violence and plans on using the power of his faith to oppose the Portuguese, while Rodrigo once more takes up arms and instructs the Guarani how to fight. All ends in tragedy as Portuguese troops overwhelm the mission and commit a heinous genocide against the Guarani. The film was a commercial disaster earning only $17.2 million against its $25.4 million production costs. The film received mixed reviews from critics, but never the less secured seven Academy Award nominations, winning one for Best Cinematography.

Joffe had always appreciated Ennio Morricone’s music and was delighted when he accepted the assignment. Morricone understood that his soundscape would need to speak to the primitive, and be infused with nativist auras. To achieve this he employed panpipes, and an assortment of nativist drums. Also integral to the film would be liturgical choral pieces to support the Catholic Jesuit traditions. Lastly, he would need to juxtapose the forces of good and evil, the contest of between greed and generosity, between the sword and faith. What sets this score apart is Morricone’s exquisite writing for woodwinds, which bath us with a stirring and evocative romanticism. To support the film, Morricone provided three primary, and two secondary themes. For the primary themes we have; Gabriel’s Theme, which serves as his identity and perfectly captures the humility, gentleness and compassion of the man. A prelude of timpani and bass sustain usher in one of the most sublime melodies ever written by the hand of man. It features a rapturous soliloquy by solo oboe tenero adorned with reverential strings, which become contrapuntal when the melody reprises. A subtle but steady rhythmic cadence by brushed cymbal supports the melodic flow.

The Guarani Theme serves as the collective identity of the Guarani Indians. It is welcoming, and exudes happiness and optimism. Morricone provides a very rhythmic expression with a joining of an assortment of nativist drums, pan flute and chanting vocals. Most interesting is how the theme evolves from random rhythms to an organized melody, which reflects their transformation through the introduction of faith and music by Father Gabriel. The Iguazu Falls Theme serves as its identity as the everlasting font of life, the prima materia, which sustains, nourishes, and purifies. While lyrical in its expression, it is tinged with sadness, and unfolds languorously, born gently by harp, pan flute, bass pizzicato and refulgent violins. Noteworthy is that throughout the film it accompanies scenes of struggle, penance and death.

For the secondary themes we have; The Brother’s Theme, which speaks to the bond between Rodrigo and his bother Felipe. It is full of warmth, affection sibling love, carried by solo flute delicato, guitar and strings tenero. The Conflict Theme provides the score’s darkest thematic construct, and is perfectly conceived, providing the necessary juxtaposition to the score’s primary themes. It is driven by truly grim and menacing bassoons playing in their lowest register, which rise ominously ever upwards, joined by strings with an ever-growing intensity. Morricone received meritoriously an Academy Award nomination for Best Film Score, but in one of the most outrageous outcomes in the history of the Oscars, lost out to Herbie Hancock’s “Round Midnight” – just unforgiveable!

The film opens in silence with white credits displaying on a black screen. Dictation by Cardinal Altamirano is written by his scribe as he describes the transformation of the warlike Guarani and their conversion by the Jesuits. As he relates their initial hostility to the Jesuits we shift to scenes of their village where we see them tying a priest to a wooden cross. In “Guarani”, Morricone supports their village and dark purpose with an extended rendering of the Guarani Theme. The theme here is nascent, and has not yet coalesced with a melodic structure; instead it is randomly articulated by wailing pan flute, and ever shifting percussive textures, and rhythms. The dark rhythms carry their progress through the jungle, falling silent as they toss the crucified priest into the Rio Uruguay. The churning sounds of the river carry him to his doom as we see him pass over the falls. In “Falls” we have a magnificent joining of film imagery and score, which establishes the tone of the film. We segue back to Cardinal Altamirano’s dictation where he relates the coming of Father Gabriel, who would unlike his predecessor, transform the Guarani. The credits resume their roll as we see Father’s Gabriel and Fielding walking against the backdrop of the spectacular Iguazu Falls. Morricone supports the stirring moment with a full rendering of the Iguazu Falls Theme, so full of sadness as they bury the remains of the crucified priest, commemorating his sacrifice with prayer.

“Climb” offers an uplifting cue where Morricone graces us with a more hopeful rendering of the Iguazu Falls Theme. The theme supports Gabriel’s goodbye to Fielding and his dangerous, and torturous c limb up the fall’s adjoining rock face as he strives to reach the Guarani. In “Gabriel’s Oboe” we have a score highlight, a cue of such sublime beauty as to earn the Maestro, immortality. Gabriel journeys through the jungle and decides to rest upon a rock. He unpacks his oboe and begins to play Gabriel’s Theme as source music. The music attracts and mesmerizes the Guarani. Although one of them is hostile and breaks the oboe in two, the others piece it back together and give it back to him. As they gently take his hand and escort him to their village, his theme, now rendered beautifully by orchestra, carries their progress. A poor film edit shifts scenes to “Asuncion” where we see Rodrigo snaring Guarani to be sold as plantation slaves. Gabriel confronts him and he withdraws. As he rides into town with several bound Guarani, a harsh and beleaguered Guarani Theme carries their progress. Rodrigo’s return in “Brothers” reunites him with his younger brother Felipe. They engage in play, which Morricone supports with the Brother’s Theme. The music is full of warmth, affection, and sibling love, carried by solo flute delicato, guitar and strings tenero. It is unfortunate that this is the only time in the film that we are graced by its beauty. Rodrigo’s fiancée Carlotta watches the brothers and we see in her eyes that her affection does not lie with Rodrigo.

“Carlotta” reveals Carlotta informing Rodrigo that she is in love with Felipe, and we see that he is devastated. He is inconsolable, and she begs him not to hurt Felipe. Carlotta’s revelation breaks apart the brothers, and Morricone speaks to this with a deconstruction of the Brother’s Theme, in which the warm flute is lost, and the guitar strums in anguish, answered by forlorn strings. “Penance” offers powerful emotions on display, which Morricone supports masterfully. Rodrigo finds Carlotta in Felipe’s arms and in a fit of rage, slays him in a duel. He is devastated and withdraws to his quarters, shunning all company, as well as food. Father Gabriel returns to town and is asked by the priest to minister to Rodrigo. When he enters his chambers he finds a man longing for death, yet instead of comforting him, he accuses him of cowardice and challenges him to gain redemption through penance. Rodrigo’s pride leads him to accept the challenge. As they return to the Guarani, Rodrigo drags his battle armor and weapons behind him as they climb. To support Rodrigo’s agony, Morricone brings forth the Conflict Theme in all its ugliness, driven by truly grim and menacing bassoons playing in their lowest register, which rise ominously ever upwards, joined by strings with an ever-growing intensity. Nightfall descends, and at 1:25 as they pray in camp the fateful Dies Irae melody tolls. The next day the climb continues with the Conflict Theme again supporting Rodrigo’s agony, but now it is juxtaposed by the Iguazu Falls Theme. Father Fielding cannot stand Rodrigo’s pain, and cuts the rope to unburden him. The Conflict Theme growls to life as Rodrigo descends and reattaches the rope, determine to succeed in his self-punishing penance.

This cue offers stirring emotive power as we bear witness to the intersection of rage and forgiveness. As they make the final ascent on the cliffs adjacent to the falls in “Remorse”, Rodrigo’s agony is supported by a grim, low register rendering of the Iguazu Falls Theme, which ascends tortuously in register, mirroring his ascent. At 1:18 as the reach the summit, dark, menacing strings inform us that the Guarani recognize Rodrigo. A man moves in to slit his throat, but relents, instead dispensing mercy for a broken man. They cut the rope to release his burden, and as a thankful Rodrigo weeps he is embraced by Father Gabriel. Morricone renders a warm rendering of Gabriel’s Theme to support his redemption. “Vita Nostra” offers a stirring score highlight, as we see Rodrigo reborn, and working dutifully with the Guarani to build the mission. Morricone supports the joy of the scene with a wondrous joining of the Guarani Theme, which is now fully formed with chorus, and Gabriel’s Theme emoted splendidly by both solo flute and oboe. “The Mission” offers another score highlight, as Cardinal Altamirano must decide the fate of the Jesuit missions, which now lie in Portuguese territory. He decides to visit the oldest of the missions and Morricone crowns the visit with a stirring and lyrical rendering of the Iguazu Falls Theme, yet the music is portentous as his thoughts reveal, “sometimes you must cut off a limb, to save the body.”

The next scene offers a beautiful score highlight with sublime thematic interplay, which regretfully is not on the album. Cardinal Altamirano accepts Father Gabriel’s offer to visit his mission so as to better understand the issues. As they journey in a flotilla of canoes down river, a splendid choral rendering of the Guarani Theme joins in wondrous communion with Gabriel’s Theme, carrying their progress. The marriage of film imagery and music is superb. In “Ave Maria Guarani” we have a choral highlight as nativist choir sings the traditional liturgical song. Cardinal Altamirano is overcome by the simple beauty of the mission and its angelic choir. As we see a montage of images of happy Guarani in their idyllic life we achieve an amazing confluence of music and film imagery. Yet it is all for naught as he later in council orders the Guarani to leave the mission and the Jesuits to accompany him or face excommunication. “The Sword” reveals how Morricone uses his music to speak to moral conflict. A Guarani boy is diving to retrieve the cache of armor and weapons Rodrigo had dragged up the cliff. He finds the cache and begins to polish the sword. Morricone supports his efforts with dark and foreboding dissonant textural writing. When the gives the sword to Rodrigo, a tentative Guarani Theme enters joined by Gabriel’s Theme, which informs us of Rodrigo’s moral struggle – to defend the Guarani, whom he loves, or to remain true to Father Gabriel, and his Jesuit vow of non-violence. The return of the ominous dissonant textural writing informs us of Rodrigo’s choice as we see him practicing his swordsmanship.

In “Alone” Rodrigo and a Guarani enter the Portuguese camp by stealth as they sleep. Morricone sows unease with formless textural percussion strikes and wailing pan flutes. At 1:29 a dark dissonant crescendo commences, which raises tension as they murder a guard and steal guns without notice at 1:54. Slithering strings and dark percussion and strings terrore support the Portuguese relentless climb up the cliffs as we see Rodrigo and his men setting up ambush traps. In “Refusal” the day of battle has arrived, and Morricone creates a masterful cue where he juxtaposes the dissonance of nativist drums and pan flutes of the Guarani, against a drum cadence of doom with martial horns for the Portuguese. Rodrigo leads his Guarani warriors to their positions, prepared to fight for their way of life. Morricone sows a grim dissonant soundscape of harsh percussive strikes and wailing pan flutes and kindred woodwinds, which attend the Conflict Theme. Juxtaposed is a steady, grim drum rhythm of doom, which commences at 1:00, slowly gaining force and menace. Repeated martial bugle calls and fanfare empower the swelling drum cadence of doom, which informs us that the Portuguese attack is imminent. We close on a crescendo of terror as the drum cadence, martial fanfare and trilling woodwinds crest. “River” reveals a river battle as Father Fielding and the Guarani ambush the Portuguese flotilla of canoes. Morricone supports the battle with an inspired choral rendering of the Guarani Theme, as they fight valiantly.

Regretfully the cue of most of the final battle did not make it to the album. The battle is sustained by the interplay of the Guarani and Conflict Themes, versus the steady grim drum rhythm of doom, and martial bugle calls of the Portuguese. In “Te Deum Guarani” as troops surround the church, Father Gabriel holds mass, supported by a portentous choral lamentation with panpipe adornment. As the troops prepare flaming arrows, we are graced by a reprise of the “Ave Maria” song. The stark contrast of faith and violence is laid bare. Undeterred by the church sanctuary, the Portuguese commander orders flaming arrows be shot to burn them out. As they come out, Father Gabriel leads them holding the sacred monstrance. The Portuguese are merciless, committing genocide by shooting everyone including women and children. In “Gabriel’s Oboe” Rodrigo falls mortally wounded, and as his life ebbs he cast one last glance at Father Gabriel as he walks ever forward to his doom. Gabriel’s Theme and his faith carry his final steps until he too is cut down. Rodrigo dies realizing that neither the sword nor non-violence could overcome such implacable evil.

We conclude with stark drumbeats, which support a panorama of the burning village. A scene change reveals Cardinal Altamirano who laments to the Portuguese Dons that they, that he, had made the world worse. The music for these scenes was omitted from the album. We conclude the film with “Miserere” as we see a canoe of Guarani survivors canoeing up river to their former life in the jungle. Morricone supports their sad flight with a final rendering of the Iguazu Falls Theme, sung by a solo boy soprano as a lamentation. As the end credits roll in “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” we are graced with a magnificent score highlight where a choral song rendering of the Guarani Theme joins in wondrous communion with Gabriel’s Theme. The confluence achieved here reveals film music in one of its finest moments.

This review utilizes the original 1986 soundtrack release of “The Mission”. While this Virgin America issue has good 1980s sound quality, what is needed is for a label to rerecord or remaster the film score and present it in complete form. This film offered Morricone an expansive tapestry upon which to compose, one where we bear witness to the intersection of powerful emotions. He understood that he would need to juxtapose the forces of good and evil, the contest of between greed and generosity, and between the sword and faith. In a stroke of genius, he composed Father Gabriel’s Theme, a theme for the ages that has earned its place in the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of great film themes. Within the notes of its exquisite solo oboe soliloquy Morricone captures Father Gabriel tender soul, and the film’s emotional core. How the Guarani Theme evolves from random rhythms to an organized melody, which reflects their transformation through the introduction of faith and music by Father Gabriel, is genius. Also praiseworthy is how consonance and dissonance are juxtaposed, contrasting the militant identities of both the Portuguese and the Guarani who chose to fight. This score is a woodwind lovers dream come true, where in scene after scene Morricone’s music enhanced Roland Joffe’s vision, and flawed execution. In the final analysis it suffices to say that Morricone’s handiwork transcended the film. I consider this to be one of the finest in the Maestro’s cannon, a masterpiece of conception and execution, and a fine example of Bronze Age film scoring. I highly recommend its addition to your collection.

Buy the Mission soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • On Earth As It Is In Heaven (3:50)
  • Falls (1:55)
  • Gabriel’s Oboe (2:14)
  • Ave Maria Guaraní (2:51)
  • Brothers (1:32)
  • Carlotta (1:21)
  • Vita Nostra (1:54)
  • Climb (1:37)
  • Remorse (2:46)
  • Penance (4:03)
  • The Mission (2:49)
  • River (1:59)
  • Gabriel’s Oboe (2:40)
  • Te Deum Guaraní (0:48)
  • Refusal (3:30)
  • Asuncíon (1:27)
  • Alone (4:25)
  • Guaraní (3:56)
  • The Sword (2:00)
  • Miserere (1:00)

Running Time: 48 minutes 47 seconds

Virgin CDV-2402 (1986)

Music composed and conducted by Ennio Morricone. Performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Incantation, London Voices and Barnet Schools Choir. Orchestrations by Ennio Morricone. Recorded and mixed by Dick Lewzey. Album produced by Ennio Morricone.

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