When people complain about the Academy Awards, it’s films like THE MISSION that justify that complaint. THE MISSION is the kind of film that Oscar loves–self-important and pretentious to the nth degree. Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro star as a Jesuit priest and his novice battling the Catholic church, Portugal, and Spain over missionary land in Brazil. Chris Menge’s stunning Oscar-winning cinematography does its best to gloss over Robert Bolt’s cardboard script and director Roland Joffe’s lethargic pacing. For film score fans, the film’s main asset is Ennio Morricone‘s memorable score.
Originally, Morricone didn’t want to score the film. After screening a rough cut, he felt that the film didn’t need music (wrong, it did…and then some). “It was so beautiful without it,” he explained in a 1987 Time interview. “But everyone insisted and begged me to write it.”
The score is based on three main ideas. The first is a four-note theme, simple and elegant, against an ever-descending harmonic pattern. The theme is sometimes played on a solo instrument, such as oboe or pan flute, at other times by the full violin section.
The second theme is first heard a cappella as the priest uses his oboe to lure the natives. The melody is free-flowing but never without shape or design and is often later accompanied by harpsichord. When listeners mistook the third theme, sung by chanting voices, as Carmina Burana, Morricone bristled: “When people hear the choir singing out loud and staccato, they believe that is Carmina Burana, but they are deaf people who don’t understand!”
THE MISSION is widely considered to be Morricone’s masterpiece, and even non-film music buffs bought copies of the soundtrack. Director Sergio Leone (with whom Morricone had worked on numerous classic films) said the score was “practically like a sung mass.” Even the composer himself had to concede: “This music represents me nearly completely.”
When Morricone’s wife called with the news of the nomination, his mother replied, “These Americans! It is four or five years that they should have given him the Oscar! Let’s hope that this is the right time, the real time.” No such luck. However, it is not surprising that Herbie Hancock’s “score” for ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT won, given Hancock’s popularity and the ignorance of many voters who marked their ballots based strictly on a movie about music. It would take another 20 years before the Academy finally awarded Morricone for Lifetime Achievement. Morricone’s loss remains arguably the biggest injustice in the history of Oscar-winning film music.
When I finally gave in to the CD craze in 1987, THE MISSION was the first film score I bought. I’ve listened to the score countless times since then and I’ve even sat through the film a few more times in the hopes I was wrong in my initial assessment. Nope. How Morricone found such beautiful musical inspiration in that turgid religious claptrap is beyond me.