At Play in the Fields of the Lord
Director: Hector Babenco
Screenplay: Hector Babenco, Jean-Claude Carriere
Adapted from the novel by Peter Matthiessen
Running Time: 189 minutes
Cast (primary characters only):
At Play in the Fields of the Lord follows the lives of two men, Lewis Moon and Martin Quarrier (Tom Berenger and Aidan Quinn), as they interact with tribes of natives in the Amazon basin. Martin is a Presbyterian minister, in the Amazon to operate an evangelical mission founded by Leslie Huben (John Lithgow). Moon, a half-American Indian bush pilot and mercenary, has been hired to ferry the Quarriers to an outpost town in South America, as well as to bomb a number of native groups off of their land in his small plane, so their land can be grabbed by speculators (the timber or mining industry, I believe).
Both men find themselves plagued by guilt and self-doubt. Martin's efforts at conversion of the natives seem to bear little fruit (sections of the film dealing with his attempts to 'undue' the teachings of an earlier Catholic missionary are especially ironic), and his son dies of a tropical disease. Meanwhile, his wife grows increasingly antagonistic towards the local tribes, convinced from the start that they are savages beyond redemption, and blaming them for the death of her son.
Quarrier begins to question his faith, the intentions of his employer, his marriage, and ultimately the propriety of the entire evangelical endeavor.
Moon, meanwhile, is repeatedly reminded of his own Indian heritage, and begins to question the morality of his actions. He concocts an idealized view of the Indian tribes, and eventually abandons his job, his partner (Tom Waits), and his plane to join one of the Indian tribes. Among the natives, he thinks he will be able to find a full life, different from the one he has lived on the edges of Anglo society in the outside world. But Moon finds no more comfort among the Indians than he has among the white men; he remains an outcaste and a misfit.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord is ultimately more than a simple cautionary tale about colonialism and pride. It shows the complex attitudes towards less 'civilized' peoples exhibited by many Americans and Europeans; contempt, idealization, patronization, sympathy, objectification, and more. Disenchantment plays a large role in the film. Martin Quarrier grows disenchanted with his wife, his religion, maybe his way of life as a whole. Lewis Moon exhibits similar disenchantment with 'civilized' life, while the natives in the movie are desperate for the amenities of the outside world- they are more than willing to submit to the strange and seemingly arbitrary rules of their Christian benefactors in exchange for knives, cooking pots, and scraps of cloth. Manhattan Island for a handful of beads.
The cinematography of the film is strikingly beautiful, with much of the footage actually shot in remote areas of Brazil (where the nuts come from). The sweeping vistas of the rainforest, the dark and winding river channels all convey the mighty beauty of the natural world. It is easy to think that these are, indeed, the fields of the Lord. This title appears within the movie; Lewis Moon, having decided to join the Indians, points his plane into the jungle, alone with a parachute strapped to his back. As his partner, Wolf, and the Hubens try to call him back and ask where he is, he reports over the radio that he is 'at play in the fields of the Lord.' Then he leaps out of the plane, and allows it to crash somewhere in the jungle, permanently severing his ties with his former life.
The rich cinematography and occasionally sparse dialogue sets a meditative tone of introspection. These are people fundamentally alone in the woods with their thoughts. For the more sensative characters, this gives them time and space to question everything they see, and everything they have thought; they sink into a miasma of self-doubt and confusion. For Martin Quarrier's wife Hazel, more rigid and unwilling to reconsider her positions, this atmosphere compounds and reinforces her attitudes, until she is almost wholly unable to cope with the trials of life in the jungle.
The film also provides something of an anthropological perspective on modern humans. Contrasted against the relatively undeveloped Indians, the attitudes and practices of the missionaries seem bizarre and nonsensical. Why does it matter if you pray in a room with icons or not? Why does it matter if you cover one part of your body and not another? The movie is a documentary, with camera turned around; the habits of the 'civilized' men and women are what seem strange and inexplicable to the eyes of the outsider.