• Ian Hyde-Lay

Nella Fantasia

He is not dead. His music is immortal.


So reads a recent tribute to Ennio Morricone, one of the world's greatest, most prolific composers and conductors. The legend, whose music left a lasting impression on millions, passed away a few months ago at the age of 91.


His death sparks a kaleidoscope of memories. Over thirty years ago, I first watched The Mission. If this ambitious film somewhat lacks clarity and received mixed reviews, the stunning cinematography and Morricone’s stirring soundtrack of the same name certainly do not. The principal theme, “Falls”, remains an exceptional piece of music, as does the haunting melody of “Gabriel’s Oboe.” Indeed, the score not winning a 1986 Oscar for Best Original Soundtrack might stand as the biggest injustice in Academy Awards history.


The Mission involves events surrounding the 1750 Treaty of Madrid. The pact transfers South American territory, on which Spanish Jesuit missions had been built, to the Portuguese, who allow kidnapping and slavery of the local Guarani tribes. A Vatican emissary, dispatched from Italy to solve the dispute, is forced to choose between two evils. If he supports the colonists, the indigenous peoples will be enslaved. If he rules for the missions, both the Jesuit Order, under pressure from the Portuguese, and the Catholic Church could split apart.


The film reaches a climax when the Guarani, aided by several Jesuits, eventually take up arms to defend their San Carlos mission against a combined Portuguese and Spanish force. The priests, including Father Gabriel, are killed. Most of the natives, even the women and children, are slaughtered.


The horrific massacre plays out against the backdrop of the spectacular Iguazu Falls, the largest waterfall in the world. This “big water” stems from the Iguazu river which runs along the junction of the Argentina-Brazil-Paraguay border.


Flash forward to March 2012. I again visit Argentina, this time in the company of 38 high school students and three wonderful coaching colleagues. It is a simply fabulous trip, from start to finish. New people to meet. New experiences. A varied itinerary, thanks to the splendid work of our guide Joaquin, has us play rugby in Buenos Aires and Rosario. Then on the Pampas, at San Antonio de Areco, before a quick hop across the River Plate to Montevideo. Our hosts are unfailingly friendly and generous, the days bright and warm, the matches close and competitive. We sample asados and empanadas, drink mate, visit estancias, meet real, live gauchos, view a corrida de sortija, observe street tangos. Sip ice cold beers on sun drenched patios.


Still, it is an actual visit to Iguazu, by now a World Heritage site, that sets my heart racing. Themes and images from The Mission again reverberate in my mind, as a train carries us through the national park to the entrance of Devil’s Throat, at over 80 meters the highest and deepest of the falls. Trails and boardwalks allow access to surrounding wilderness, spectacular vistas and numerous small islands.


Later, we venture up-river by boat. It is a bumpy ride, and soon we are soaked by the spray. But it does not matter, as the sheer majesty of the falls, of the staggering volume and power of the water, leaves one breathless.


Too soon our outing is complete. I ponder the seemingly random links between sport, a maestro, a movie. Between a waterfall and an oboe. Given that, in concert, they have left a definite mark on me.


There is one final connection. For years, after the release of The Mission, artists badger Morricone for permission to produce lyrics to Gabriel’s Oboe. He initially refuses but finally relents. The song Nella Fantasia is the result. Timeless, it touches a nerve with its dreams of love and peace and hope.


Such valuable and precious commodities. And so absolutely vital in the current Covid age, as we navigate our own uncharted territory.