If it feels like Robert De Niro has just always been around, well … he has performed in credited work for 55 years now. From the unpredictable and often deceptively boyish looseness of early films to his multifaceted late-career journey into action, family fare and comedy, De Niro has endured as an icon for multiple generations (even if some of those first knew him as an animated shark). In honor of the actor’s 80th birthday this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writers and contributors are taking a look at some of his biggest (and lesser-known) roles. Intimidation and insecurity. Belligerence and benevolence. Hopeless romantics and horrific killers. Gangsters and nurturers. This is Bobby’s World.

Nearly 35 years after seeing it on its first run, The Mission has stuck with me primarily for three reasons.

One is the justly celebrated cinematography that won Chris Menges an Oscar (and for which he gave perhaps the lowest-key acceptance speech in Academy Awards history).

The second is the score by Ennio Morricone, which didn’t win the Oscar; Herbie Hancock’s ’Round Midnight took that one. But it’s one of the only movie soundtrack I’ve listened to repeatedly over the years. Is there a more haunting two minutes of movie music than “Gabriel’s Oboe”? Not to my ears.

The third element that stuck with me is Robert De Niro’s performance. As a movie buff reaching the age of R-ratings in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I had already been KO-ed by his work in The Deer Hunter and Raging Bull, then thrown a curve by The King of Comedy. But this was something different.

The Mission wasn’t asking me to simply root for the guy. Neither was it asking me to just despise him. It was asking me to believe a man can change. Not just adjust, but fundamentally change. You don’t see that often in movies, which are often about revenge and rarely about redemption.

The film was Roland Joffé’s directorial follow up to his Oscar-winning The Killing Fields. Here again was a film about innocent victims at the mercy of governmental changes. Only instead of Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Joffe this time took us back to the 1750s when political maneuverings between Spain, Portugal and the Catholic Church disastrously affected Jesuit missions and the indigenous Guarani people of South America.

The screenplay was by Robert Bolt, one of the most accomplished scripters of sweeping historical stories, having penned A Man For All Seasons, Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan’s Daughter and Doctor Zhivago in his heyday. But here, he was coming off the largely forgotten Lady Caroline Lamb and The Bounty, 1984’s disappointing remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. Still, the man was never shy about scale.

But while the canvas was large, Joffé and Bolt focused on three main characters. There’s Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), presented as a man of peace; Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), the film’s narrator trying to balance the political, the religious and the social … and failing; and Rodrigo Mendoza (De Niro).

We first meet Mendoza as a slave trader adept at capturing the locals and willing to kill without remorse – that is until family infighting leads to a duel with his brother. De Niro wins the fight but falls into depression and an understanding — largely wordless here — that he has failed as a human being. Under Father Gabriel’s guidance and with penance far more severe than a couple of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s, Mendoza finds salvation for himself in the company of the Guarani.

His conversion to humanity is as raw and powerful a breakdown as Tom Hanks’ emotional collapse at the end of Captain Phillips. And as the film progresses, Mendoza’s disillusionment with the faith he’s converted to is generally conveyed in silence and in his reactions to the uncontrollability of the politics around him. It’s a beautiful performance.

Rewatching The Mission recently, those three elements — the stunning cinematography, the never-bettered music and De Niro — continue to stand out, although the lens of an additional couple of decades did affect the film for me.

For one, my memory of the movie was of a three-hour epic. My latest viewing surprised me by briskly clocking in at just over two hours. I went searching to see if it has been edited down a la Heaven’s Gate after its initial release. Apparently, I had biggie-sized the film in my memory.

On my long-ago first viewing, I was already vaguely aware of – but wasn’t terribly troubled by – the fact that the drama was seen entirely through the eyes of its white European characters; it’s a now-problematic element in many films of that era (e.g., Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom). Seeing it again, the very limited use of subtitles for the indigenous Guarani is just one indication that the people most affected by the actions in the film are here largely, if movingly, decorative.

That may diminish but it doesn’t come close to erasing the magic in the merger of Morricone, Menges, Joffé and De Niro.