The Mission  (1986)

Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons lead the cast in this exceptionally powerful and vivid evocation of colonial life in Brazil of the late 18th century.  Irons is a Jesuit missionary who has been sent to the interior to establish a mission after his predecessor’s body has been floated down the river rapids tied to a cross.  De Niro is a slave trader who kills his brother (Aidan Quinn) in a fit of romantic jealousy and joins the Jesuit order as a way of doing penance.  The central drama revolves around the Pope’s division of these territories between the Spaniards and the Portuguese.  The film commences in 1758 (three years after the earthquake in Lisbon), and the Marquis de Pombal is in power.  A high church official has been sent to resolve the missionary issues created by this partition, and to mollify the Jesuits.  Irons and his little band of brave monks resist the changes based on the Portuguese record of tolerance for slavery and the comparatively clean record of the Spaniards on this matter.  When the Portuguese lead a raiding party upriver, De Niro renounces his vows and leads an ill-fated resistance.  In all of this, it is the native people who are most beautiful and most abused.  Daniel Berrigan is one of the Jesuits.  Story and screenplay by Robert Bolt.  Ebert objects perhaps a bit too strenuously to the lack of coherence in the narrative.

The Emerald Forest (1985)

Directed by John Boorman, this film announces that it is based on real-life events, but it appears to be vaguely inspired by a similar situation of many years earlier. The key role is played by Boorman’s young son, Charley. It opens in an unidentified large city on the Amazon where a man named Bill Markham has brought his family to live in comfort while he completes work on a hydroelectric dam further along the river. While visiting the site, Markham’s seven-year-old son is spirited into the forest by a mysterious tribe called the Invisible People. Markham searches for his son for ten years without results. Suddenly, while being chased by a hostile tribe, he comes face to face with his son, who is now a warrior of his people. The movie is only half over. Father and son slowly form a bond and the film ends with the two making a daring rescue of a group of young women that have been taken into sexual slavery by a white saloon owner. One of them is Markham’s daughter-in-law. There is an interesting turn-around here as viewers realize they are rooting for the Indians to kill their white oppressors and to rescue their way of life. Albeit, they are led by a young blonde warrior who will become their chief. This part of the movie features some extended scenes of life in the Amazonian enclave.

The Green Wall (1970) – Peruvian Amazon

According to Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, this was an important film for its time. Ebert narrates the extraordinary impact this movie made at a film festival in Chicago, and Kael is lavish in her praise. Sadly, it failed to win a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. I had never heard of this one until I saw it on a murky VHS in 2014. The text on the cassette box established that the film was based on the real life experiences of director Armando Robles Godoy. This does not square, however, with his brief biography in Wikipedia. The story tells of a young man who abandons his office job in Lima and sets off to start a small coffee plantation in the rainforest at the southern end of Peru. He brings with him his pretty wife and a young son. They are in a remote spot called Tingo Maria. The enemy here is government bureaucracy. In the end, the boy receives a fatal snakebite and the dream dissolves. Maybe if the picture quality had been better and more effort had been made to establish the time and place, this film might have found its balance. Instead it is a genuinely human story lost in an incoherent style of filmmaking.

Medicine Man (1992)

Sean Connery produced and starred in this Amazonian adventure, also featuring Lorraine Bracco. This is an excellent example of a strong background movie. The foreground story, transpiring between the two stars, is compromised by Bracco’s grating performance. Leaving this serious deficit behind, the film begins with a journey into the Amazon where Connery is conducting bio-medical research. The rainforest is very effectively represented and so too is the world of the indigenous people who live there. The urgency in the film is provided by the oncoming juggernaut of road builders for the logging industry. The scientists must in the meantime climb high into the canopy in search of a flower they are sure can cure cancer. In the end, their hopes are dashed when it is discovered that it is not the flower but the ants that live within that hold the cure. The bulldozers arrive and all is lost. Undaunted, this unlikely couple elects to stay and begin their search anew. This is hard to grasp as three quarters of the movie consists of annoying hostilities between them.

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