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The Mission
  • Composed by Ennio Morricone
  • Virgin / 49m

Roland Joffé’s follow-up to his exceptional debut, The Killing Fields, was about a piece of history considerably more distant, as Spanish Jesuit missionaries see their work undone as a tribe of Paraguayan natives fall within a territorial dispute between the Spanish and Portuguese.  It’s not a great film, but it looks beautiful, is well-acted (Jeremy Irons is excellent as the passive senior missionary, Robert de Niro as a reformed mercenary and Ray McAnally as a papal representative with smaller roles for Aidan Quinn, Ronald Pickup and Liam Neeson) and then of course comes the pièce de résistance, one of the greatest contributions to cinema of one of cinema’s greatest contributors, the incomparable Ennio Morricone.  The music soars with beauty and passion, and the film is perhaps cinema’s most extraordinary marriage of image and music this side of Once Upon a Time in the West.  

It’s no surprise that the soundtrack album is one of the best-selling of all time.  Music plays such a key part in the film that many people who saw it will have gone out and bought the album; but this is the best type of film music, because it doesn’t just “work in the film”, indeed it doesn’t just enhance the film, it absolutely makes the film – and then some.  And honestly it doesn’t just do that – while in practice I’m sure Morricone took great inspiration from the film (being a religious man) and yet it seems entirely as if it’s the film which is taking its inspiration from the music.

Ennio Morricone

The composer’s ability to craft melodies which are enough to melt the hardest heart has never been in doubt, but The Mission goes beyond what even he usually conjured up – there are half a dozen melodies in this score which are just sublime.  And it’s not just the melodies – it’s what Morricone does with them, how he arranges them, moves them along, uses them so inventively.  There might not be the astonishing creativity here of his scores for Sergio Leone – at least not in the sense of simply dazzling the listener with extraordinary techniques that nobody had dreamt up before – but in terms of writing such technically-proficient music which is so gut-wrenchingly beautiful, surely this is Morricone at his peak.

The album sequencing is perfect.  It opens with the end credits – titled “On Earth as it is in Heaven” – and instantly we’re into classic territory, a piece which has grown a life of its own.  The mixture of heavenly choral chanting, subtle tribal percussion and the film’s exquisite main theme (on oboe) is enough to make anyone fall to their knees and praise the Lord – it’s just completely stunning. Morricone would never answer when somebody asked him what he considered to be his best score, but one suspects it was this (poignantly, this piece was played at his funeral) – it would always close his concerts (in rearranged form) and would always bring down the house.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that there is considerable danger in putting such a piece at the start of the album – surely nothing could ever live up to it.  Not in this case – “Falls” follows and is truly blissful, soaring, inspiring – pan flutes and then the full orchestra play the wonderful melody, and while it’s not hard to imagine a composer being inspired by the sensational image of the waterfalls which inspire the piece, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have been more inspired than this.  Of course, the treats are far-from-over yet – we still haven’t got to “Gabriel’s Oboe”, which is the main theme for Jeremy Irons’s character, with Morricone reportedly somehow taking his inspiration from Irons’s random finger placements as his character sits and plays an oboe – in this arrangement, with simple harpsichord accompaniment, it’s another piece which just seems heaven-sent and it too has taken on a life of its own in the years since the film, being turned into songs, played at weddings – people know the tune even if they may not know where it comes from.

Undoubtedly the score’s most striking feature is the choral music – frequently performed on-screen by huge choirs of natives, including in the film’s greatest moment – and while the opening theme is without question the crowning glory, “Ava Maria Guarani” is another fine creation by Morricone – to write music like this, whose presentation as an authentic 18th century piece within the film never rings untrue, and yet which functions within the sensibilities of a 1986 film score, is a great achievement.  And with all these great themes, Morricone still finds time to craft a charming, lilting piece for guitar and flute, “Brothers”, which plays over happy moments between de Niro and Quinn just before de Niro is prompted to commit the most violent act which ultimately convinces him to become a reformed character.

Five tracks gone, all of them of the most beautiful variety imaginable, yet this is a film with extremely dark undertones so inevitably darker music arrives at some stage.  “Carlotta” underscores a moment of high violence, with desperation and anger rippling below the surface.  “Vita Nostra” reprises the choral chant of the opening cue (and is indeed the first time it is heard in the film) – a similar arrangement, but this is a piece of music that few would ever tire of hearing, and it has a brilliant ending (which would be copied by numerous A-grade film composers in the years to come).

“Climb” slowly builds, never leaving anybody in any doubt that beauty is around the corner, and as it reaches its climax with the reprise of the waterfall theme, it’s almost orgasmic.  “Remorse” goes back to the darker side – the swirling music perfectly representing the deep psychological trauma on-screen – it’s a technique also employed by Bernard Herrmann in his day, and has lost none of its power.  “Penance” is based around the score’s darkest theme, with Morricone again fashioning a piece which builds and builds, a simple idea being repeated by an ever-rising ensemble until the pay-off, which feels entirely justified.

“The Mission” reprises the waterfalls theme, this time in a slightly slower, more contemplative arrangement (sans pan flutes).  “River” is one of the score’s finest pieces, as the main choral theme builds and builds in the most beautiful fashion, as the papal representative in the colony is taken up river to the mission (sadly when he gets there he decides to have it burnt down and the natives all slaughtered – the Lord moves in mysterious ways, I guess).  A reprise of “Gabriel’s Oboe” follows, in a fluid arrangement with a terrific ending.  A short choral piece, “Te Deum Guarani”, is brief but just as fine as its predecessors in the score.

One of the darkest cues on the album now follows – “Refusal” is a rather dissonant, uncomfortable piece, reminding us that things are not all heavenly.  “Asuncion” combines pan flute, pizzicato strings and ethnic percussion for a piece representing the hustle-and-bustle of the Paraguayan capital – all set to the melody of the main choral theme.  It’s a nice piece (and Morricone would go on to write a very similar one a few years later in the wonderful Nostromo).  Darkness returns in “Alone”, with real dissonance this time, though it doesn’t feel out of place.  “Guarani” continues the more uncomfortable feeling, but in a different way – this time the dominant force is one of mystery, stressing the different culture which has become mixed up in European politics.  “The Sword” reprises Gabriel’s theme again (no oboe this time though), even throwing in a slightly heroic lilt to the orchestration; and the album ends with the magnificent “Miserere”, a stunningly beautiful arrangement of the waterfalls theme for solo choirboy.

Film music just doesn’t get better than this.  I indulge in hyperbole far too often no doubt, but I can’t help but consider Morricone a genius. The innovation of the first half of his career, the classical beauty of the second – the astounding melodies all the way through – he was something truly special. The Mission is as beautiful as any film music I’ve heard – it works wonders for its film and stands alone as a musical masterpiece away from it. Grazie, Maestro.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Sara Andon (Reply) on Saturday 11 July, 2020 at 17:49

    Exquisite review, James!!!! You say everything I could only dream of being able to articulate. Thank you so much for your passion and talents. The grand Maestro thankfully will be immortal through his incredible spirit and his otherworldly music. I listened quite often to EM’ s music – it is food for my soul, but I have his music on non-stop since the announcement of his passing. He gave us such a tremendous gift to this world. Thank you, again, for sharing your brilliant thoughts and feelings – it means so much. <3

  2. dominique (Reply) on Monday 27 July, 2020 at 15:35

    the mission is there and will stand the test of time,

    it’s one of the greatest and beautiful contribution to music that has ever written!

    • dominique (Reply) on Monday 27 July, 2020 at 15:38

      been written.