The Mission (1986)

Dir. Roland Joffe. Starring Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Robert De Niro

Father Gabriel (Irons) is the only European Jesuit priest above the waterfall who is unwilling to fight for the Guarani with violence. Rodrigo (De Niro), whose skill with violence is unquestioned, comes to Gabriel to be blessed before joining the battle. “I cannot bless you,” Gabriel says. If his mission is to be ordained by God, then God will bless it, and if God did not ordain it, then Gabriel’s blessing will hardly accomplish anything. There’s a sort of logic to that which is appealing, although if Gabriel really believed that then there would be no reason for a priest to bless anything. Robert Bolt was a marvelous writer, especially for film – aside from writing A Man for All Seasons, he adapted Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago – but there’s a slip-up in his story which Gabriel’s comments about blessing shine a light on; Bolt takes the religion out of his ostensibly religious characters. He creates the rock and the hard place which are so effective in A Man for All Seasons, where Thomas More has to decide between his conscience and his life. His conscience wins; his life loses; in the unwritten epilogue, he is remembered as “Saint Thomas More.” The trouble is that the rock and the hard place are entirely political in The Mission, and thus the drama that comes from choosing which one is hewed upon is mitigated. Gabriel and Rodrigo both make moral choices about how they will try to defend the Guarani; the movie loses its chance to say something about religious choices. Had its eye been on something a little more vast, we would be talking about an all-timer of a film.

A Man for All Seasons showed us that Thomas More believed primarily in his understanding of God’s word as opposed to the Catholic Church. The first scene after the opening credits takes place in Cardinal Wolsey’s study, where Thomas refuses to back up the Archbishop of Canterbury; the rest of the film, basically, is the story of how Thomas won’t back up the king of England because his conscience won’t let him. The Mission takes the question of who can make a powerful choice in the rocks/hard places away from its main characters, Gabriel and Rodrigo, and places it squarely in the hands of Cardinal Altamirano (McAnally). The question of whether Altamirano, who has come to write a death sentence for the Guarani by closing down Jesuit missions for Iberian profits, can be a More instead of a Rich hangs over much of the film. McAnally’s cardinal is for that reason the most interesting person in the movie, even though how he’ll choose is clear from the get-go.

Gabriel, who is the craftiest man in South America, appeals to Altamirano’s humanitarianism as opposed to his piety. He ensures that the cardinal will see the Guarani working hard at their plantations, where the money they earn goes to keeping up the mission and their home life. Gabriel has a flair for music, and part of his dramatic presentation is not merely the playing of European instruments by the Guarani, but the making of violins by them as well. Hearing their music, seeing them arrayed in the cool darkness of the sanctuary, watching them hoist bananas into a cart to go to market: they are certainly people. Earlier in the film, Spanish proto-capitalist and expert wig-thrower Don Cabeza (Chuck Low) called the Guarani “animals.” Scenes of Rodrigo in the jungle when he was still a mercenary and slaver give off a very strong Count Zaroff vibe. But none of this is particularly religious; it’s not a religious matter for a modern viewer to recognize that the Guarani are people, and for every Bartolome de las Casas in the historical record, there are hundreds of clergymen and members of holy orders who saw the native people of the Americas as savages, like Don Cabeza does, or as simply irrelevant compared to European interests, like Don Hontar (Ronald Pickup). Gabriel’s work is shown to give the Guarani new music, avenues for profit, a stable home. Aside from a comment early in the movie that he will “make Christians of these people,” there’s very little which evinces his religious side.

Ironically, the most profound and moving segment of the film concerns not Gabriel but Rodrigo. Jealous of his brother (Aidan Quinn) who has won the love of a woman (Cherie Lunghi) Rodrigo wants as well, Rodrigo kills Felipe in the street. (Felipe, interestingly, manages to ensure that Rodrigo does not go to prison or face death: “Quarrel with me!” he tells his hot-tempered brother, who was about to vent his spleen and perhaps the barrel of his pistol on an unlucky guy in town, and the two have a brief, legally countenanced duel.) Shaken to the core, Rodrigo takes Gabriel’s offer of a hard penance: come with him to the mission above the falls, San Carlos.

In the first major scene of the film, Gabriel climbs a waterfall. Although he has the body of Jeremy Irons, he obviously struggles to ascend to the top. The water is falling in his face. The rocks are slick and at one point he loses his footing long enough to look down and see the drop below, a drop which would certainly kill him. He carries only a small pack on his back and a long, wrapped-up tube (revealed later as Gabriel’s oboe.) It is profoundly difficult, and it is with no small amount of relief that we see him crest the final stones. Gabriel’s penance for Rodrigo is not identical, but it is similar in execution; Rodrigo drags his armor, his sword, and the trappings of his position overland from the city up to the new mission. He does not shirk from it, does not complain or cry out, but it strains him. The bundle gets caught more than once; at one point it falls and Rodrigo falls with it. One of the Jesuits (Liam Neeson) comes to Gabriel, the leader of the group, and says that he and the others think Rodrigo has probably had enough. Gabriel objects. When Rodrigo thinks it’s done, Gabriel says, I will too. (Like the statement about blessings, this strikes me as a terribly odd thing for a priest to say; it’s the kind of statement Bolt’s More is more likely to have dropped.) Eventually the Jesuits and Rodrigo attain the peak. The slaver collapses onto his hands and knees, the Guarani huddle around to see the new man and realize it is someone they are all too familiar with, and then they take a closer look at him. His formerly natty hair and beard are caked with mud, making them the same color as his long tunic. He is exhausted and ruddy, totally spent. One of the men approaches him with a knife and for a moment it seems that this journey may end in a cut throat for Rodrigo, but he chooses to spare him, and the desire for vengeance turns to pity. Gabriel takes the knife and cuts away the rope binding Rodrigo to his old belongings; they fall, with a muddy brown splash, into the blue water where they float downstream. (It is a totally fitting piece shot, a visual metaphor as simply and effective as any other I’ve seen on film.) The Guarani touch Rodrigo’s beard. Gabriel hugs him tight. And Rodrigo laughs and cries all at once.

That long stretch of the film, one which seems interminable in the minutes where we see De Niro go up yet another emerald hill with that giant pack strapped around his torso, becomes deeply moving. To me, this is a far more interesting and a far more powerful statement about religion than any of the feel-good stuff Father Gabriel spouts. Gabriel’s religion is a magical panacea; apply kindness and all of a sudden you’ve made a utopia in the Amazon. Rodrigo’s religion shudders him and shudders the onlooker as well. Black Narcissus, a movie which bears some similarities to The Mission, shows how the religion of the nuns is as much an impediment to doing good as Rodrigo’s armor is to trekking. Silence, which also features Jesuits outside Europe (and Liam Neeson, go figure), makes the love that Gabriel prattles on about into a blunt fist to the teeth. Even The Passion of the Christ, which will doubtless be remembered to future filmwatchers as anti-Semitic camp, does one thing well by transforming religious faith into scathing. None of those movies happen to present the obverse headrush of religious pain, though. The Mission finds a way to turn its wicked man, through his privation and penance, into one worthy of sympathy. For moments like that, as few as they are in the movie, this is something worth seeing. I don’t know if a two hour narrative can sustain itself on those instances, but I know I wish they’d tried.

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