Ranking as one of the more depressing movies of all time, one potential interpretation of the film is this: You can take the high road, you can take the low road, but get in the way of power and you wind up dead.
Most notable about the film, while it heavily criticizes the establishment Church, it wears its “Christian values” right on its sleeve. The script was written by Robert Bolt, author of “A Man For All Seasons,” that masterpiece of cinema that somehow makes an action-adventure hero out of a stodgy priest who won’t recognize divorce.
The setting is a little footnote in history, a minor border realignment between Spain and Portugal in their Latin American holdings. Minor for everyone except the indigenous tribes living there, where the power switch means a shift in policy from occasional attacks from kidnapping slavers to a full-on assault. In the way, alas, are a few Jesuit missions, but Spain and Portugal unite to convince Rome to cut these suckers loose.
This all sounds very complicated and geopolitical. It isn’t. The movie is really about two men. Jeremy Irons is a glowing halo of goodness, a reedy, bearded priest stepping direct from a Velasquez painting. Robert DeNiro (it takes a few minutes to buy him as a Spaniard) a repentent slaver looking to join the Order. They each face the same crisis at the end, but come to different conclusions.
Oy, is this some heavy religious flick? No, it is actually very exciting. And it features some of the best sequences of roughing-it in the jungle since “Aguirre: The Wrath of God.” (Aguirre never had to do Catholic penance as he climbed up the side of a waterfall.)
Definitely worth seeing in a theater. I’d seen this once before — on VHS — that’s a mortal sin!