Missionary Zeal in an Amazon Rain Forest

'AT Play in the Fields of the Lord" was published by Peter Matthiessen in 1965. A naturalist as well as a novelist, Mr. Matthiessen gave the ring of uncompromising truth to this allegorical story of missionaries and mercenaries clashing in the depths of the Amazon rain forest. Although it shows somewhat less originality than a later Matthiessen novel like "Far Tortuga," an impressionistic tale set in the Caribbean, it still makes a strong impact with its unsettling account of cultural conflict in a jungle environment. The film version of Matthiessen's story, directed by Hector Babenco, has basically the same plot and focuses on the same main characters. One is Lewis Moon, a North American Indian who travels to Brazil as a soldier of fortune, renounces civilization in disgust over its corruption, and joins a native community that regards him with mingled awe and suspicion. The other is Martin Quarrier, an American missionary who wishes to bring his faith and values to the unenlightened of the world, no matter how irrel evant they find him and his message. Other characters include Moon's sidekick, a scruffy troublemaker; Quarrier's wife, who finds jungle life unendurable; and Leslie and Andy Huben, a husband-and-wife missionary team who add more weight to Quarrier's already large burden of moral and psychological uncertainty. The filmmakers took pride in the authenticity and credibility of their work. According to Universal Pictures, the movie's distributor, just about everything on-screen during the extensive jungle scenes - houses, costumes, objects - were made by people from the region where shooting took place. Local residents were also hired to appear in the story. Filming was done over a five-month period in an area 1,200 miles from Rio de Janeiro. True authenticity is often hard to achieve, though, and the makers of "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" had to do some compromising. Since the local residents did not share identical tribal backgrounds, they were rehearsed for months in gestures and behaviors that would look convincing to distant moviegoers. A language also had to be concocted for them to speak, since they spoke different dialects in real life. There's nothing all that shady about this sort of make-believe, which can't easily be avoided in commercial filmmaking. Harder to swallow is the presence of high-profile Hollywood stars in the main roles - most notably Tom Berenger, decked out in the year's heaviest makeup job, as the dark-skinned Plains Indian at the heart of the story. Just when the film's efforts at authenticity start working their magic, leading even the skeptical spectator to suspend disbelief and roll with the narrative's flow, Mr. Berenger inevitably shows up with his recently acquired suntan, reminding us that it's just a Hollywood movie after all. Looking beyond physical appearance, Berenger gives a thoughtful performance as Moon, perhaps the most complex character of his film career. Aidan Quinn also does heartfelt work as Quarrier, solidly supported by John Lithgow as Leslie, and Tom Waits as Moon's sleazy companion. Kathy Bates gets a bit shrill as Quarrier's suffering wife, but Daryl Hannah is surprisingly strong as Andy. The film's treatment, however, of a nude scene Ms. Hannah appears in, complete with peek-a-boo buildup and languid posing, contrasts with the matter-of-fact handling of the native women's nudity, revealing much about Hollywood's continuing opportunism where sexuality is concerned. Despite its sometimes wobbly credibility, "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" has a seriousness and sobriety that lift it well above most of the past year's movies. Never apologetic about its three-hour length, it moves at a deliberate pace that allows audiences to sink into the story and ponder its message about the heartbreaking difficulties that can arise when one culture has different ideas than another about what constitutes a decent way of living. The film was written by Jean-Claude Carriere, a scenarist of long and varied experience, and Mr. Babenco, who continues to develop the semirealist style that distinguished his "Pixote" and "Ironweed" in earlier years. Lauro Escorel did the superb cinematography.

Rated R for language and sensuality.

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