One of the 15 films listed in the category "Religion" on the Vatican film list.
It won the top prize at Cannes in 1986 and was nominated for a Best Film Oscar; but for many American critics and audiences, Roland Joffé’s The Mission was something of an enigma.
In spite of Chris Menges’ lush, Oscar-winning cinematography, Ennio Morricone’s outstanding score, an intelligent screenplay by Robert Bolt, and admirable performances from Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, there was some feeling that the film simply didn’t hold together.
Roger Ebert’s complaint was not uncommon: "The Mission feels exactly like one of those movies where you’d rather see the documentary about how the movie was made. You’d like to know why so many talented people went to such incredible lengths to make a difficult and beautiful movie — without any of them, on the basis of the available evidence, having the slightest notion of what the movie was about."
Culture critic Michael Medved went so far as to label the film anti-religious, on the grounds that it focused on cowardly eighteenth-century ecclesiastical officials who sold out idealistic Jesuit missionaries and their converts to profit-minded Portuguese imperialists and slave traders. Yet in 1995, the papal committee compiling the Vatican film list numbered The Mission among fifteen films noteworthy for special religious significance.
About two things, at least, Ebert was undoubtedly correct: The Mission is a difficult film, and it is a beautiful one.
That it’s artfully photographed is hardly a surprise: Joffé, Menges, and producer David Puttam previously collaborated on The Killing Fields, which also won an Oscar for cinematography. And the film’s Amazon valley setting, with its stunning vistas and magnificent Iguassu Falls, provides photogenic subject matter.
But the beauty of The Mission goes beyond landscapes or camerawork. From the unforgettable opening sequence, with its stunning depiction of the martyrdom of a silent Jesuit missionary at the hands of equally silent South American natives, the film is shot through with piercing, haunting imagery, pictures of enduring imaginative force.
Screenwriter Robert Bolt was also responsible for A Man for All Seasons (also on the Vatican film list for religious significance), Fred Zinneman’s incomparable film about the last years of St. Thomas More, who was martyred under King Henry VIII.
The differences between that film and this one are striking. A Man for All Seasons is driven by dialogue; it sparkles and burns with Thomas More’s own love of words. Bolt said that in writing it he strove to create "a bold and beautiful verbal architecture" evocative of the quality and subtlety of More’s inner life.
By contrast, the strongest moments in The Mission are wordless. Indeed, throughout most of the first third of the film the characters don’t speak much at all; their actions speak for them.
Witness the electric first moments of contact between the hostile natives from that first great scene and the next Jesuit missionary who, not yet speaking their language, dares to venture into their territory armed only with an eloquently nonverbal profession of good faith and peaceable intentions. Or the stubborn, dogged determination of a guilty, broken man quite literally bound to the evils of his past, clinging to a promise of hope that is all that stands between him and despair. Or the shattering, liberating power of redemption that comes in an unexpected and moving way. Or the touching rituals with which a transformed community embraces a man it has every reason to spurn.
But it’s also a difficult film. Though it shares creative ties with A Man for All Seasons and The Killing Fields, few will find The Mission as immediately accessible or as gripping as either of those two powerful films. The drama here seems diffuse, without an obvious center, or even an obvious protagonist. Of three key characters, it’s possible to pick out the most admirable, the most venal, and the most tragic; but the plot is not obviously about any of their stories.
In simplest terms, The Mission is a fictionalized account of a historical event that was both an atrocity and a tragedy. Here are the background events, as I understand them.
In 1750 Spain and Portugal signed a treaty renegotiating a borderline between Spanish and Portuguese territories in South America, with Portugal taking control of a previously Spanish region on the Paraguay River. In this region were a number of mission communities, founded by the Society of Jesus, where thousands of native Guaraní converts lived. These missions (called "reducciones" or "reductions") were not simply spiritual centers, but thriving economic communities where converts worked together and prospered.
The Jesuit missionaries, who were ardent champions of the Pope, strongly opposed slavery, an institution long condemned by Rome. The Vatican had particularly condemned the enslavement of the newly discovered peoples of the Americas; but social acceptance of this teaching (as of the Church’s condemnations of dueling in the nineteenth century or of abortion today) was limited and partial. Spain had anti-slavery laws, but Portugal didn’t; and naturally the Guaraní — who even under the Spanish administration were already being covertly hunted by Portuguese slavers with the tacit support of opportunistic Spanish governors — deeply resented the transfer of power.
Once the Spanish withdrew, the only protection remaining to the Guaraní would be the Jesuit reducciones. The Portuguese, of course, wished to see the missionaries depart from the region together with the Spanish civil authority.
In spite of this, the Jesuit missions might possibly have been able to remain in the new Portuguese territories with Vatican support. However, some ecclesiastical officials apparently found this politically inexpedient. Because of the Jesuits’ opposition to slavery and their strong defense of the papacy, the Order was already a political target in some European countries. If the missions succeeded in openly thwarting the Portuguese in South America, some officials feared that the Portuguese government would retaliate by expelling the Jesuits from Portugal, leading to similar setbacks throughout Europe.
Thus, in the name of protecting the Order on the Continent, the missionaries were ordered to abandon the reducciones and send their converts back to their native ways of life. (Ironically, both the ecclesiastical effort to protect the Society of Jesus, and the Portuguese effort to overcome the Jesuit agenda, eventually failed. Despite the withdrawal from South America, the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal, and within 25 years the order had been officially suppressed by the Vatican. On the other hand, the disputed territories were soon returned to Spanish control; and ultimately slavery was abolished throughout the entire region, and the Guaraní slaves emancipated.)
The Mission tells the story of one company of missionaries who defy the order to leave their mission, defending the right of their converts to remain in their new home. Some of these priests, led by a novice named Mendoza (De Niro), even actively lead the Guaraní in guerrilla warfare against the Portuguese forces who eventually arrive to expel them — despite bitter opposition from their own leader, Fr. Gabriel (Irons), who insists on a path of peaceful disobedience and spiritual devotion. Inevitably, "neither approach is effective", as Ebert sees it; and the conclusion is as tragic as it is inexorable.
This bare-bones sequence of events is not a film plot, only a history lesson. Examining the plot of The Mission, we find that the story divides readily into three acts, each with its own moral crisis. First, there is Mendoza’s personal struggle between despair and redemption. Then comes the sad, foregone investigation of Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), a papal legate nominally sent to inspect the work of the Jesuits in South America, but whose de facto mission is to rubber-stamp established plans to abandon the missions. Finally, there is the crisis between Fr. Gabriel and Mendoza over the issue of guerrilla resistance.
The whole film is tied together with scenes of the guilt-ridden Cardinal Altamirano dictating a barbed letter to Rome conveying both assurance and disapproval. These scenes seem to place Altamirano’s moral crisis at the heart of the drama. Yet Altamirano is the least developed and least interesting of the three key figures, more a symbol of the failure of ecclesiastical officials than a dramatically or morally interesting character that we really care about one way or the other.
The use of Altamirano as a unifying element is, I think, a structural flaw, a mistake. The Mission is not about Altamirano — even if perhaps Joffé or Bolt thought it was. Whatever the merits of Michael Medved’s take on the film as an indictment of ecclesiastical officials — and whatever the merits of that indictment itself — this is not first of all what the film is about. The Mission is about Fr. Gabriel and Mendoza: about the struggle for Mendoza’s soul, about their campaign to save the Guaraní, and about the spiritual and moral implications of the two different paths of resistance they take.
Part of the reason some viewers may feel unsure "what the movie was about" is that, while it’s apparent which of the two priests we’re meant to side with, it’s not necessarily obvious why. Both men, although sworn religious under vows of holy obedience, disobey their superiors: so why is it right for Fr. Gabriel to disobey Altamirano by staying at the mission, but wrong for Mendoza to disobey Fr. Gabriel by leading the Guaraní in guerrilla resistance? The Church upholds just-war theory, and certainly the Guaraní are the aggrieved victims, so why shouldn’t they defend their home?
These are worthy questions, and they have reasonable answers, though unfortunately the film never quite makes these answers entirely explicit.
The first point is that the keeping of vows of obedience, although a normative moral necessity, is not an absolute necessity that applies in all possible circumstances. Given sufficiently grave reason — such as the endangerment of souls — religious can be justified in breaking holy obedience. For the Jesuits to abandon their Guaraní converts, to expel them from their mission homes and return them to the jungle without pastoral guidance or support, would be akin to endangering their souls; and not even a vow of obedience can require a priest to do that.
The second point is a venerable Catholic tradition that — just war or no — priests do not take up arms or engage in military exploits. Regardless whether the Guaraní are justified in violently resisting the Portuguese, Fr. Gabriel insists that, as priests, the Jesuits must provide spiritual support, not military support. "Help them as a priest," he passionately exhorts Mendoza. (Incidentally, there’s another reason why even the Guaraní are not here justified in violently resisting the Portuguese: They have no hope of success. Just-war theory requires a just struggle to have at least a reasonable chance of bringing about a better state of affairs by resisting than by not resisting. However, the film is not at all concerned with this point, even obliquely.)
This is not to say that Fr. Gabriel is concerned only with his converts’ eternal state but not with their temporal condition. On the contrary, St. James’ exhortation to look after the bodily needs of the poor as well as their spiritual needs was the whole point of the ambitiously utopian Jesuit reduccion mission communities.
During Altamirano’s inspection of the Guaranís’ living conditions on their reducciones, a haughty Spanish official opposing the Jesuits’ resistance to the slave trade sniffs, "I see no difference between this plantation and my own." Whereupon Fr. Gabriel answers emphatically: "That is the difference: This plantation is theirs." It is precisely this for which Fr. Gabriel contends, and for which he is willing in the end to die — though not, as a priest, to kill.
In fact, concern for the temporal is so evidently a theme in The Mission that some Christian viewers have been concerned about possible "liberation theology" implications in the film. In its more extreme forms, liberation theology was a purely temporal ideology that merged into Marxism. Yet to me at least it seems clear that the admirable figure here is the gentle martyr Fr. Gabriel, not the armed warrior Mendoza; the film doesn’t seem to be an apologia for armed revolution. Nor is it possible to limit the scope of the film’s interest, like that of Marxism, to the merely temporal; clearly the spiritual matters here as well.
It’s probably a moot point anyway; liberation theology is effectively dead, at least in Catholic circles. To charge a particular film with promoting liberation theology is like saying that The Three Musketeers promotes dueling: That might have been an issue once, but not today.
The Mission is not a perfect film, but it is a rich, challenging one that explores the spiritual and the temporal, and the relationship between them, in a thought-provoking way. It contains moving images of despair, penance, and redemption that are among the most evocative ever filmed. It offers a positive depiction of Catholic missionaries as selfless champions and defenders of indigenous peoples and their ways of life rather than as oppressors or imperialists. It begins and ends in martyrdom — in bearing witness, signed in blood. It deserves attentive watching and thoughtful reflection.
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How come, in your article on Hollywood and Religion, you did not mention the #1 Catholic Movie (to my opinion that is): The Mission?
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