For a brief time in the mid-‘80s, Roland Joffé was considered quite the prestigious helmer. (Pretentious to the detractors.) Whichever camp you fell into, his reign was brief; two films and out.* This was the second, a sort of White Filmmaker’s Burden saga about 18th Century Jesuits bringing their beliefs and good deeds to forest-dwelling South American Indians, only to find their ‘good works’ sacrificed on the commercial altar of financial & territorial agreements between Portugal, Spain and the Papal Authorities. Socio-politico catnip to scripter Robert Bolt who rehashes themes from his A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS/’66, splitting his upstanding man character between Jeremy Irons’ pure man-of-faith and Robert De Niro’s impure man-of-doubt-and-action. (De Niro even takes on Thomas More’s forced confession, played here as groveling apology.) And that’s Ray McNally as the Papal litigate issuing realpolitik justice a la Thomas Cromwell. In truth, the construct shouldn’t work at all (and not a jot’s worth of thought on how the Jesuits also destroy a unique indigenous primitive culture), but Joffé’s physical production captures something raw & awesome, helped by the South American scenic wonders so brilliantly captured by Chris Menges, and from Ennio Morricone’s apt & ravishing score. (Dumbfoundingly good.) De Niro, as he often does when working outside his urban-contemporary fach, relies on a one-size-fits-all intimidating stare. (Even more underwhelming with a young Liam Neeson working alongside him, and perfect for the part.) But Jeremy Irons, as the Jesuit leader, doesn’t put a foot wrong. And such feet! Joffé going all out with a ‘how beautiful the feet’ fetish in shot selection.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *After forgettable disappointments in Los Alamos (FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY/’89) and India (CITY OF JOY/’92), Joffé never really recovered from his risible rethink of THE SCARLET LETTER/’95 with Demi Moore. (In truth, it was over for Joffé when he tagged on a final accusatory stare from McNally after this film's end credits.)
DOUBLE-BILL: Less melodrama, more Christian humility in 17th Century Canada as Jesuit Missionaries try to convert Algonquins in Bruce Beresford’s fine/mysterious/unnerving BLACK ROBE/’91.