Music Composed & Conducted by Ennio Morricone
Movie Genre: Drama, Adventure
Movie & Soundtrack CD Release: 1986
Label: Virgin Records
Available also in LP & as a digital stream/download

“A soundtrack that belongs to the realm of classic and a benchmark for the music of cinema with spiritual existence and religious implications. Never before and never after the movie “The Mission” (1986) did Ennio Morricone write a score so determining for the shaping of his career!”

The history of the music of cinema would have been very different, if the composer Ennio Morricone had remained committed to his decision to give up the cinema. He was convinced that the time had come for him to devote himself exclusively to his personal music, where he would have had the luxury to not be accountable to anyone. After at least twenty years as an active composer for the cinema, he had ensured his financial capacity. However, fate had other plans for Ennio Morricone and the year 1986 has been crucial to his career. After an invitation of the producer of the movie “The Mission”, Fernando Ghia, Morricone saw the movie, which touched him deeply. However, he refused to undertake its music. The most common reasons for which a composer declines a movie is the limited time he has to write the music and the low pay. Neither, though, was the reason that made Morricone refuse.

It was, probably, the most unanticipated reason a producer expects to hear. The movie seemed perfect to Morricone without music! He considered that if he wrote music for it, he would destroy it, being unable to write music equivalent to the incredible beauty of its natural landscapes. It took a lot of persuasion on the part of the producer and the director, in order for Morricone to finally accept to write the music of the movie. Fortunately, then he didn’t know that he was not their first choice. The other producer of the movie, David Puttnam, had originally proposed Leonard Bernstein as composer for the movie, but the communication with him was impossible. If Morricone had known that he was the second choice of the producers, then he would have definitely declined the proposal. Despite, thus, all the indications to the contrary, the universe conspired so that Morricone finally writes the music for the movie “The Mission”.

A Jesuit mission led by Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) reaches the Iguazu falls in Latin America, in order to proselytize the tribe of the indigenous Guarani. There their work will turn out to be more complicated than they originally imagined. They will have to deal with the slave trader of the natives, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), and to accept the orders of the Catholic Church, which sends a cardinal to decide on the disputed, between the Spanish and the Portuguese, location of the Guarani.

The music of the movie starts from 1:29 of “Guarani” (#18) and continues until the end of the track. The percussion and ethnic wind instruments refer to the natives. The constant presence of the strings in the background that produce a cold sound, is the audio depiction of the atrocious punishment that the natives had in store for the previous priest that attempted to initiate them into the Christian faith, whom they tied on a cross and threw from the falls. The sounds in the music that concern the natives, percussion and wind instruments, are heard in the foreground because these are the ones prevailing in the scene, as opposed to the priest who is found at a disadvantage, so his audio imprint is heard in the background. The cold sound from the strings that concerns him reveals that something unpleasant, something bad is expected to happen. The viewer has started hearing it before realizing what is going on, the music prepares him and denotes a future situation, the death of the priest.

In the opening credits we see three Jesuit priests reaching the Iguazu falls, under the music of the track “Falls” (#2). The harp starts performing a simple theme, in order to hand over the baton to some exotic flute, with the orchestra following. Three words come to mind when listening to the theme of the falls: purity, serenity, humility. What does the music refer to? To the exquisite natural landscape or to the priests, who act as bringers of the Christian faith? There is not an actual dilemma here, since all the three above characteristics emerging from the music equally concern the natural landscape and the religion that the priests came to preach to the natives. Ennio Morricone composes music that in a magical way matches both, since nature and religion are driven by the values of purity, serenity and humility. After all, God lies in nature and its indescribable beauty proves it.

Father Gabriel seeks to approach the natives but in order to do so, he will first have to climb the falls, a dangerous climb, with the water flowing on him and making it difficult. The intense noise of the flowing water at a moment is significantly reduced so that the music of “Climb” (#8) enters and becomes perceived. The theme of the falls returns in a mood of anxiety for what happens next and for whether Father Gabriel manages to climb them. Soon the anxiety will give way to reassurance, that ultimately everything will turn out well. When he reaches the top of the falls, being relieved, he makes the sign of the cross, thanking God that he made it. Before doing so, the violins of the orchestra at the finale of the track, will have already given a sense of divine presence by the side of Father Gabriel.

The first theme that Ennio Morricone wrote for the movie is the one that is supposedly performed by Father Gabriel on the oboe so that he manages to approach the indigenous Guarani. With a musical instrument as a “weapon” in his hands, which produces a beautiful sound, he attempts to earn the sympathy of the natives. It is not only the beauty of the oboe that will charm the natives. That would be enough for any civilized person of Europe. For a native, though, a role is also played by an additional symbolism, with which Father Gabriel will earn their undivided attention. When a foreigner appears while playing music, namely what the natives consider as most sacred, then this foreigner has found the best possible way to ingratiate himself with them. Apart from his idea of playing music for them, the choice of the oboe, a wind instrument, alludes to the traditional flute of Native Americans, which in their culture is linked to the circle of life (birth-death), to the fertility of the Earth and possesses magical properties. Therefore, by performing music and indeed from a wind instrument, Father Gabriel conjures up what in the primitive civilization of the natives is superior. He may not speak their language, but he speaks the only language that all peoples understand regardless of how primitive they are, the music. When they take him by the hand and walk together, they tell him we accept you in our society and we allow you to initiate us into this superior thing you stand for. The musical theme of the oboe represents priest Gabriel and his values. The music becomes a tool for the expression of the Christian faith. The initial percussion instruments in “Gabriel’s Oboe” (#3) are like announcing a musical event that will follow. The harpsichord will give the solid background, on which the oboe will play a leading part. We are in 1750, so the choice of the harpsichord to accompany the oboe seems reasonable. The theme of the oboe has been written considering the music that at that time someone could actually perform.

The successive footage of Father Gabriel living in harmony among the indigenous Guarani accompanies the theme of the oboe, when suddenly the musical atmosphere changes and becomes threatening and eerie, something caused by the momentary turbulent outbreaks of the violins. The natives are running in panic, when some of them are captured by ropes, traps set by the slave trader Rodrigo Mendoza. After capturing many natives, he returns to the town riding. Ennio Morricone composes his triumphant return in “Asuncion” (#16). The percussion instruments, performed in the same way throughout the track, symbolize the steady trot of the horses, and the exotic flute symbolizes the captured natives who are intended for slaves, with its performance being abrupt and staccato, rather than lyrical and beautiful. It has lost its beauty, because they are not free anymore. This was the original approach of the composer and we hear it in the soundtrack, but in the movie we hear another version of this track, something denoting that the director asked for changes: the ethnic percussion instruments are missing and the performance of the strings became much more noticeable and now these depict the brisk trot of the horses.

Rodrigo sells the natives to the Spanish conquerors and next we see him teaching riding to his younger brother, Felipe (Aidan Quinn). In this scene, the music refers to the love that connects the two brothers, in which the guitar participates, as we hear in “Brothers” (#5). As the riding lesson finishes, the partner of Rodrigo appears, Carlotta, who is secretly in love with his brother, Felipe. There follows the scene where she confesses to Rodrigo her love for his brother. From the tender theme of the two brothers, the music moves to the feeling of rejection, while Carlotta and Rodrigo are discussing. It is the track “Carlotta” (#6), where the guitar continues being present but very different, at first reading it depicts loneliness and sadness. Is there any reason that the composer chooses to use again the guitar in this scene? Its cold performance concerns Felipe and presages something unpleasant for him. The music in this scene does not lament Rodrigo for the partner he loses, but for the fate that is foreshadowed for Felipe, as a result of his brother’s rage, despite his contrary admission to Carlotta. If you notice the behavior and the body language of Rodrigo in this scene, in combination with the music of Ennio Morricone, the course of events seems to be certain and disturbing. Rodrigo is not sad about the confession of Carlotta, on the contrary, he is annoyed, offended and modestly irritated. How could Carlotta reject him for his younger brother? His gaze is frozen, without a trace of condescension. When she is about to touch him, he pushes her away. The playing of the guitar in the introduction of “Carlotta” (#6) witnesses the tragic development that will soon come, it alludes to the mournful sound of a bell.

Later in the film, at an outdoor night fair with dances, the music of Ennio Morricone is not consistent with the festive spirit of the scene. The music is at least restless, almost threatening and what is more, it is the only sound that is heard. No chatter is heard, neither natural sounds, nor the music of the outdoor celebrations. Everything is quiet in order to highlight the bad emotional makeup of Rodrigo, through the music of Morricone. Unfortunately, this exceptional idea lasts only a few seconds, because soon the ethnic music of the celebrations is heard, which covers the music of Morricone, which is hard for the viewer to perceive. Given the plot development and the fatal fact that will happen, the director had an excellent opportunity in this scene to escalate the internal tension, the anger festering inside Rodrigo, by leaving the music of Morricone to act all alone throughout the scene, with no other sounds. An excellent, but ultimately lost opportunity, as he failed to take advantage of the tool the composer provided him with in order to capture this, which in this scene the images are not in a position to capture. The harsh contrast of the music to the picture (the celebrations) would give a greater depth and emphasis on the internal feeling of Rodrigo.

Rodrigo killed his brother and is tormented by remorse, when he receives the visit of Father Gabriel. The track “Remorse” (#9) is used in this scene, but it seems that the composer had a different approach than the one that the director finally preferred. Rodrigo is irritated by the ironies of Father Gabriel and grabs him from his clothes with the intention of hitting him. A little earlier, the music has started denoting that something bad is lurking, with the violins performing with coldness the theme of the falls from “Falls” (#2). When Rodrigo stands up and grabs Father Gabriel from the clothes, then the music intensifies the tension of the moment, like preparing for a culmination of Rodrigo’s behavior. Ultimately, the music bluffed, because Rodrigo afterwards left Father Gabriel and sat again on the floor. Then the music returns, with no reason at all, to the atmosphere it had at the beginning of the scene, with the cold performance of the theme from “Falls” (#2). This music made sense only at the beginning of the scene, in order to build up the interest of the viewer, until 1:10 of “Remorse” (#9), for the later peak of suspense, from 1:10 until 1:48. The following music, as written by Ennio Morricone, concerned the tender return of the theme from “Falls” (#2), performed by a flute (from 1:49 until the end of the track). If the perspective of Morricone had been used, then the viewer would have realized that Rodrigo has started thinking that what Father Gabriel tells him may be the best thing he can do, namely to follow him to the mission, even though he does not express it in words. The music would have given a voice to Rodrigo’s innermost thoughts! Actually, why does the composer choose the theme of the falls in this scene, both at the beginning in a cold way, and at the end in a tender way? Well, it is because over the falls they met for the first time and indeed not at all in a friendly manner, and it seems that they will return there. Therefore, the music reminds us something that happened in the past and reveals to us something that will happen in the future! It seems that the above left the director indifferent. Once more, the director made an unfortunate move that did not make the specific scene better, but worse.

Rodrigo decided to follow the priests to their mission over the Iguazu falls. The approach is difficult because they will have to cross the jungle and then climb the falls. In a big net, Rodrigo carries with him his heavy iron armor, but he is determined to carry it, despite the effort he has to pay. This burden he carries symbolizes the sins of the past and these were not few, if we remember the killing of his brother and the slave trade. It is like carrying all those things connecting him with his former sinful self, which he will have to leave behind him, but he has still not accepted it, this thought has not matured inside him, he is in a battle with himself. This internal battle is wonderfully depicted with the music of “Penance” (#10), where a motif from the wind instruments is performed again and again and subsequently the strings perform it, like giving the sense of the unfinished, the forced endless internal battle into which he gets himself until he moves to the other side of the river of his faith and frees himself from the burdens of the past. The team approaches the falls and apart from the above motif, Morricone will add to the music the theme of the falls. When a member of the team wonders for how much longer will Rodrigo be carrying his stuff, Father Gabriel replies that only God knows. And then the theme of the falls will be heard in the music, at the point 1:54 until 2:24 of the track. As in the opening credits, where we heard for the first time the theme of the falls, here as well, nature and God are two identical concepts.

The team climbs the falls and the first natives meet them. They run to hug the priests but they see as an enemy the until recently slave trader Rodrigo, who has been exhausted by the climbing and the carrying of his armor and has kneeled on the ground. Then a native threatens to cut his throat with a knife, but he finally cuts the rope that keeps him tied with his armor, which falls from a height in the river. At once all the burdens of the past go away, the atonement for the sins begins and Rodrigo starts crying. Father Gabriel hugs him and in the music the theme of the oboe returns, which was previously mentioned as symbolizing the Christian faith. Rodrigo made his first step towards his faith to God. When the natives accept him as one of their own, the theme of the oboe will be accompanied by a new choral theme, which will start being heard when, in a shot, a big cross appears, intended for the church under construction. The timing during which this exquisite choral theme appears, gives us the impression that it concerns the establishment of the Christian faith in a primitive civilization. The Latin lyrics, besides, performed by the choir point to this, but the content of the lyrics reveals to us something that turns everything upside down: the meaning of the lyrics is the voice of protest of the indigenous Guarani for the fate that fell upon them, being the bone of contention between the Spanish and the Portuguese conquerors. Now that the natives embrace His faith, they address God as their protector, and they pray to Him so that he saves them from their sufferings. The music of this scene is absent from the released soundtrack, you can hear the choral theme, though, in “Vita Nostra” (#7).

Later in the movie, the choral theme of the natives will return during their travel along the river with Father Gabriel and the visiting cardinal accompanying them. The music of the scene is found in “River” (#12) and it may seem like being music accompanying a celebration, a joyous event, however, the essence of the lyrics remains every time they are performed, it is their prayer to God in order for Him to bless them with a desired outcome in their issues. The track “River” (#12) will be repeated when the hostilities between the natives and the Portuguese begin. As such, the choral theme of the natives will return in order to encourage in the scene of the battle with the boats on the river. The Guarani fight for their freedom and with the presence of the theme it is like feeling God by their side. 

When the cardinal visits the mission of Father Gabriel and enters the church the natives have made there, he sees inside many of them, who had a surprise for him, they sing to him a Mass of the Catholic Church. It is “Ave Maria Guarani” (#4), an original composition of Ennio Morricone that resembles the Masses of that time and the cardinal gets impressed by the work of the mission in the area. However, since they are not European performers that are proficient in the language and this kind of music, the performers should not sing very well on purpose in order to make believable to the viewer what he sees and mainly what he hears. It would not be reasonable and realistic for the natives to sing flawlessly a Mass of the Catholic Church. This was achieved by choosing people from various countries as members of the choir, who did not sing well or had obvious vocal problems. For once, the flawless performance was never a goal, but rather the opposite!

The decision of the cardinal is to turn over the territories of the indigenous Guarani to the Portuguese, so all of them, along with the Jesuit priests, will have to give up the mission and leave. Father, now, Rodrigo is lying down when a little boy of the natives approaches him and gives him a sword while staring at him in silence. It was the sword of his armor that fell in the river and the little boy found it. It is like telling him use it for us, us who accepted you among us and hugged you. Remember your sinful past and fight by our side. Father Rodrigo looks the sword and the boy alternately, also in silence. Sometimes silence tells more than words. Especially when there is the music of Ennio Morricone, words are superfluous. The theme of the oboe invites both of them to defend what the Christian faith achieved in this place, but before and after the theme of the oboe, there is an abrupt and annoying motif, from the wind instruments in “The Sword” (#19), which is the dark reminder of the old evil self of Father Rodrigo, which he has to remember if he wants to defend the Guarani.

Father Rodrigo visits Father Gabriel to ask for his blessing for the battle that is about to follow. Their dialogue is scored with the theme of the oboe and it is no wonder why the composer chooses it for this scene. Just before the battle between the Portuguese and the indigenous Guarani begins, it is the best time to reaffirm the faith of Father Rodrigo, so that he gets strength to defend the natives against the Portuguese. The serenity exuded by the theme of the oboe offers the best concentration and it is the ideal encouragement for the difficulties to come. After the end of the battle, a little girl who survived takes a violin floating on the river and leaves in boats along with the rest of her tribe. Despite the elimination of the mission, its effort bore fruit, it left a remnant of civilization in the natives. The scene is accompanied by the voice of a boy singing a hymn in Latin, which is based on the theme of the falls. We hear it in “Miserere” (#20) and it is performed as the continuance of the faith in absolute identification and harmony with the nature in the memory of the natives. The use of the child’s voice is the depiction of hope for a better future for the Guarani.

Nowadays, the closing credits usually include music that preceded the musical narrative of the movie. It is practically a medley of the soundtrack’s themes. The music in the closing credits should not be considered of minor importance and does not lie there just to kill the silence of the black-and-white screen with the film’s credits, as the viewers are leaving the cinema. The music in the closing credits can summarize in a very beautiful manner the musical personality of the movie, sometimes it can present it in an alternative way taking advantage of some changes in the instrumentation, or it can make the closing credits part of the musical mechanism that preceded and even lead it to a peak. The closing credits are the aftertaste with which the viewers leave the theater and Ennio Morricone made sure to make this aftertaste glorious! This was the objective from the beginning, he wanted to combine the individual themes he wrote, in a track that will grip the recipient of his music. Indeed, hardly could anyone ignore the track “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” (#1) and leave the cinema without listening to it!

Morricone was building throughout the movie his musical construction so carefully, in order to be able in the closing credits to give a masterful composition that now seems as the natural outcome, the deterministic musical epilogue, which marries some of the themes that preceded. The Christian faith, which is expressed with the theme of the oboe, is combined with the prayer of the indigenous Guarani to God, which is expressed with their choral theme, and both of these themes are based on a motif of ethnic percussion that is incessantly repeated and alludes to the nature that is the home of the natives. The symbolism of the percussion for the Native Americans is the heartbeat of mother Earth. This creates three musical levels, which become the path to the exaltation of man. Mother Earth gives us the necessities to live and go our way, the Christian faith offers us spiritual food and the way to realize the majesty of God, and the prayer gives us the passport to communicate with Him and be redeemed. There is no doubt that the music of the closing credits of the film “The Mission” is one of the most iconic pieces of music written by Ennio Morricone and he always placed it at the end of his concerts around the world.

What gives a bad impression is the mix of the music in the movie in relation to the other sounds. And especially in demanding scenes that need the music’s support. Even when two people are heard discussing, like for example in the dialogue between Rodrigo and Carlotta, or between Father Gabriel and Rodrigo in order for the latter to come to the mission, or between Father Rodrigo and Father Gabriel when the first one wanted to get the blessing of the second one before the battle, the music sounds too low, so low that sometimes you do not even perceive it! But even when there are no other sounds and we only hear the music, like for example at the finale with the little girl and the violin, even there the music can hardly be perceived. This undermines the role of the music and finally invalidates it. What is clear is that this cannot be happening by mistake. It is a conscious, yet inexplicable, decision of the director, who seems to lack faith in music, he gives the impression that has some kind of fear towards it. If, indeed, we take into consideration the two important failures, which were mentioned earlier, as regards the changes the director made in the composer’s approach, then the director’s phobic syndrome for music is totally verified. The director’s attitude, unfortunately, did not make his movie better. It made it worse. If he had adopted the musical vision of Ennio Morricone, he would have had in his hands a better movie than the one that currently exists. Egoism in cinema is a bad thing.

The interesting element is that the above failures, fortunately, did not cost the music its nomination on the Academy Awards, where one of the greatest injustices since their founding happened, which was combined with one of the most outraging awards in the category of original music, when Herbie Hancock won the Oscar for the movie “Round Midnight”, which had too little original music, and not Ennio Morricone for the music in the movie “The Mission”. Contrary to the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs honored the music of Ennio Morricone with an award. A few decades after the release of the movie in the cinemas, its music is nowadays more recognizable and notable than the movie itself. The sales of the soundtrack exceeded all expectations, especially if we take into account that the film was a box office failure. Apart from the fact that the composer reconsidered his decision to give up the cinema, the success of this soundtrack made him known and popular all over the world, leading, thus, to an explosion in the demand for his musical services. And while he had stopped accepting to write music in American productions because the pay they would give him was too low for the level and the quality of his music, the soundtrack of the movie “The Mission” hiked up his pay as well and he came back to the movies of the American cinema.

Most important, however, is the huge love people showed to this soundtrack. A simple search on the internet is enough for someone to read comments that bear witness to the timelessness of the music and its spirituality. A recently disabled young man who considered ending his life listens every day to the movie’s soundtrack and finds the courage to continue living. A nurse in a COVID-19 intensive care unit, who is daily so close to death, after the long shifts, returns home and listens to the soundtrack in order to be able to recover from the psychological strain. This is the power of great music. You can never realize it in its full range and in its full majesty. Not even Ennio Morricone himself could even contemplate it. A movie gave rise to all these. A soundtrack that belongs to the realm of classic and a benchmark for the music of cinema with spiritual existence and religious implications. Never before and never after the movie “The Mission” (1986) did Ennio Morricone write a score so determining for the shaping of his career!

Track List:

01. On Earth as It Is in Heaven (3:50)
02. Falls (1:55)
03. Gabriel’s Oboe (2:14)
04. Ave Maria Guarani (2:51)
05. Brothers (1:32)
06. Carlotta (1:21)
07. Vita Nostra (1:54)
08. Climb (1:37)
09. Remorse (2:46)
10. Penance (4:03)
11. The Mission (2:49)
12. River (1:59)
13. Gabriel’s Oboe (2:40)
14. Te Deum Guarani (0:48)
15. Refusal (3:30)
16. Asuncion (1:27)
17. Alone (4:25)
18. Guarani (3:56)
19. The Sword” (2:00)
20. Miserere (1:00)

Total Time: 48:42

The tracks that stand out are noted with bold letters

Score Rating: * * * * *