Morricone and ‘The Mission’
No V words here. Indulge me for a Throwback Thursday, my brief departure from the vicissitudes of this pandemic season. My way of celebrating a piece of music that has not only helped define a memorable film but has also permeated many a life, mine among them.
Arrivederci to Italian film scorer and composer Ennio Morricone, 91, who has gone to eternal landscapes but who left behind some 500 compositions, the most enthralling of which is the soundtrack of the movie “The Mission.” His oeuvre spans wide, from spaghetti westerns to “Cinema Paradiso” and the epic “Novecento.”
After I learned of his passing several days ago, I pulled out my Morricone CDs. Then I decided that watching him conduct his own music on YouTube on a big screen was a better treat for the soul. I was struck by the online comments—from a truck driver on night runs to a nurse working 12 hours as a frontliner—about the constant comfort the soundtrack gives them.
From Agence France-Presse: “Although he is most closely associated in the public mind with Leone’s westerns starring Eastwood, Morricone’s composition for Roland Joffé’s Jesuit drama ‘The Mission’ is considered by many critics to be his cinematic masterpiece.” And memorable, too, but I think that without the movie it might not have stood alone. (It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1986.)
I reviewed “The Mission” a long time ago. I watched it twice, the second time sans tears, only notes.
Morricone was not given an Oscar for that and many of his works — embarrassingly so for the Film Academy — but they gave him a belated honorary Oscar in 2007. (He did win for “The Hateful Eight” in 2016.)
An aside. When Pope John Paul II visited Colombia around that time, the indigenous people sent him a message, part of which read: “The music, the song and the gaze of each native bear the mark of sadness for the plundering of the land… Our feet are calloused by the long journeys we have made, fleeing from the invader each time he has driven us into a corner.”
That damning modern-day epistle could very well have been written by the Guaraní Indians of 18th-century Paraguay to the pope of that era when the Indians, along with Jesuit missionaries caught in a political maelstrom not of their own making, were driven out of mission territory and butchered by men who believed that might is right.
This is what the film “The Mission” is about — the politics of greed and enslavement. And martyrdom. It shows that liberation theology, frowned upon by despots in scarlet robes and military uniforms, was not invented in the 20th century but was nurtured centuries ago by the dispossessed.
The film opens with a crucified Jesuit being fed into the roaring waters by angry Indians. Arms outstretched, the unknown solitary figure hurtles down the raging cataract. The cruel scene is an intimation of a turbulence that is to visit the Indians who, before the coming of the Jesuits, called God by another name.
Comes another disciple of Saint Ignatius of Loyola — the ascetic Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) who scales the treacherous heights to replace his dead confrere. He meets the hostile Indians with gentleness and with music from his wind instrument. (“Gabriel’s Oboe” is the title of the movie’s theme.)
The film is not so much how the jungle’s indigenous people are “subdued” by the cross, but how they later rise up to defend not only their “new” faith but also the land of their “pagan” ancestors from the murderous, greedy white gods who smell of gunpowder.
Robert De Niro plays the slave trader Mendoza, whose time in prison brings him to repentance and the priesthood. The padre later learns that the violence he had left behind is the same violence he must confront, this time with him on the side of the Indians.
Morricone’s music weaves in gently at first then rises majestically into crescendos — chorus and all. The music and the movie are one.
“Gabriel’s Oboe” and the soundtrack of “The Mission” live on to this day and will live on, perhaps like Beethoven’s familiar “Ode to Joy.”
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