Film Review:   The Mission

By Jeffrey R. Cuellar

     This award winning film ("The Mission" won best picture at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, and was nominated for seven academy awards) shows the brutality of colonial powers in their quest to subjugate South America during the mid 18 th century.   Directed by Roland Joffe, "The Mission" features Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons as its lead characters (with Academy Award Winner Liam Neeson playing a small role in the film as a Jesuit priest).   "Captain Rodrigo Mendoza," played by Robert DeNiro, is a Spanish mercenary who lacks both compassion and morality in his quest for wealth through slave trade.   "Father Gabriel," played by Jeremy Irons, is the Jesuit priest who establishes a mission deep in the jungle to convert the Guarani tribe, which is portrayed in the film by a real South American tribe known as the "Waunana."  

The three main characters of this film (which should include the Waunana tribe, which portrayed the film's Guarani) are what make this obscure film a masterpiece.   Actor Robert DeNiro, who has portrayed a variety of "tough-guy" roles through the years, plays "Rodrigo Mendoza" superbly, showing both ruthlessness and compassion as few actors can.   His character in the movie is somewhat similar to his portrayal as "Michael Vronsky" in" The Deer Hunter" (1978) in that he is a strong willed, brooding, protective individual who is a warrior on the battlefield.   Ironically, in both films he cannot save those that he cares about.   Jeremy Irons plays the quiet, intelligent, and fearless priest who is almost "Christ-like" in his nonviolent, loving nature.   He also portrays a man who is a rigid believer in the essential Jesuit concept that you win over your opponents by showing love and compassion, not violence.   In fact, "Father Gabriel" is the only Jesuit priest who does not take up arms to defend the mission against an impending Portuguese attack during the final scenes of the picture.   There are few other actors who could have portrayed "Father Gabriel" as well as Jeremy Irons did.   His portrayal of "Father Gabriel" showed the best of what Jesuit teachings could have produced in an individual.   A man who chose   love instead of violence, a man of extreme faith in the teachings of the bible who knows "god's law" to be superior to "man's law."   The final character that made this film such a memorable one was the Waunana tribe that portrayed the "Guarani" in the film.   Using anything other than a real indigenous South American tribe would have been a tremendous blow to an otherwise excellent story and cast.   Their role in the film was simple: to show the camera how a real indigenous tribe would have lived during the 18 th century.    This is made simple by the Waunana because their way of life has been unchanged for perhaps thousands of years.   The most memorable tribe members in the film have to be the mischievous children who are drawn to our characters throughout the entire film.   It was infuriating to see that indigenous tribes people were often referred to as "animals" during colonial times.   One particular scene in the film expresses this sentiment when a Spanish nobleman wants to abide by a certain treaty so that he could bring the indigenous tribes to "profitable" labor.   (The film refers to the "Treaty of Madrid" which encompassed the exchanging of land between Spain and Portugal, allowing previously Spanish land to be ceded to Portugal, a country which permitted slavery).   While these main characters are what makes this film work so beautifully on screen, a further examination into these characters and their roles shows how truly magnificent this film is.  

Captain Rodrigo Mendoza is a seemingly cold, but fiery individual who has probably known nothing but violence during his lifetime.   In DeNiro's first scene in the film, he is shown running a trap to capture some Guarani tribesmen, and shows his brutal nature by not hesitating to shoot at those who managed to escape. This also marks the first encounter Mendoza has with Father Gabriel.   In that scene, Father Gabriel tells Mendoza that the Jesuits are establishing a mission in that part of the jungle and that he wishes to convert them.   To this, the ruthless Mendoza simply answers "If you have time."   His icy manner is once again exhibited after hearing from his woman that she is in love with his brother.   His reaction to the news is a cold indifference; perhaps Mendoza believed her admission to be untrue.   He later finds her in bed with his brother and this finally drives him into a jealous rage.   In the ensuing argument Mendoza's brother challenges him to a duel, and after a short fight Mendoza fatally wounds his brother.   Even as his brother dies clutching Mendoza's feet, little emotion is shown at the realization that he had just killed his own brother.   The aftermath of that moment marks the beginning of the remarkable transformation the cold mercenary undergoes in the film.   Due to the fact that Mendoza killed his brother in a duel, he was free from any form of prosecution (which during that time period seems appropriate, adding to the historical accuracy).   He then seeks refuge in a mission where he refuses to speak with anyone, spending his days reflecting on what he has done. Father Gabriel is then asked by a fellow priest to speak to Mendoza in hopes that he could persuade him to cease his journey towards self - destruction.   After forcing Mendoza to see the error of his self - destructive behavior, Father Gabriel offers him a chance to atone for his sins.   After a truly arduous act of penance that Mendoza undergoes to atone for his many sins (he has to drag his armor and weapons through the jungle to the remote Jesuit mission known as San Carlos), he is brought face to face with those he once hunted for the slave trade.   In a truly moving scene, he is forgiven and embraced by the Guarani tribe, and the instruments of warfare that he carried through the jungle as a symbolic "ball and chain" were cut away and discarded into a nearby body of water.   In a truly inspirational story of redemption, Mendoza, a former man of war renounces violence and helps those that he once enslaved for profit.   He also finds peace for perhaps the first time in his life.   Later, Mendoza asks Father Gabriel for admission into the Jesuit priesthood, where his new life as a "man of the cloth" begins.

     Father Gabriel is an unyielding believer in the bible's teachings, and is a man of peace who begins the film by traveling deep into the jungle to encounter the tribe that had already taken the lives of some Jesuit priests he had sent to convert them.   He knew there was danger involved but he fearlessly ventured into the jungle with the belief that God would protect him.   His first encounter with the Guarani is a scene that could have meant Father Gabriel's death, but upon realizing that the unseen Guarani were watching him, he took out his flute and started to play.   The tribesmen were moved by his musical ability (except for the chief who berates him in his language and proceeds to break Gabriel's flute).   In the following moving scene, one tribesman picks up the broken flute and tries to put it together, but to no avail.   Perhaps realizing that they were wrong to be hostile to a man who obviously meant no harm to them, the tribesmen welcome him, and the roots for the eventual establishment of a mission are set.   His first encounter with the other main character of the film, Mendoza, as mentioned earlier, was not a good one.   His next meeting with him however, was the turning point in Mendoza's life as Father Gabriel persuades him to ask God for forgiveness in the killing of his brother.   He oversees a very harsh act of penance for Mendoza, and eventually grants Mendoza's wishes to join the Jesuit order.   The two then begin a successful mission which is named San Carlos.  

While the casting of such terrific actors as DeNiro and Irons certainly enhances the film's prestige, it would not have been such a fine film without the other leading "cast member."   The casting of a real indigenous tribe, the "Waunana," was just as important as the casting of the fine actors mentioned above.   Without real South American Indians, this movie would have lost much of its appeal (one can still recall the old westerns of the 50s where Indians were often played preposterously by white actors).   The Waunana play a very resistant and mistrustful tribe that had already "martyred" several Jesuit priests who traveled into the deep jungle to convert them.   They were however won over by Irons' character in a memorable scene in which they are captivated by the flute playing of Father Gabriel.   They play a very simple hunter/gatherer people, who are right to be mistrustful (because of slave traders like Captain Rodrigo Mendoza earlier in the film) but who are also curious and quite forgiving as was very unexpected in Mendoza's encounter after his penance was carried out.   Their historical talent for music, whether in song or instrument playing, is shown throughout the film right up to its final heartbreaking scenes.   It is sad that the tribesmen in the film, as in real life during the 18 th century, were often caught in a "catch-22" situation regarding their relationship with Europeans.   While Europeans brought many technological advances and "salvation" in the form of Christianity, they also brought about destruction and enslavement of many indigenous tribes in South America.   As Father Gabriel states "Perhaps it would have been better if they had not known white men at all."

     This film deals not only with the redemption of Captain Mendoza or the moral teachings of love and brotherhood that Father Gabriel exhibits, but also deals with the politics of the time period, when greed very often undermined moral judgment.   The primary political issue shown in the film deals with whether or not formerly protected Spanish territory should be protected after the Treaty of Madrid.   This treaty signaled the end of Spanish rule in the area mentioned (borderlands of Argentina and Brazil).   The significance of this is later mentioned in a scene when a newly arrived Spanish Cardinal holds court to decide whether or not to still protect Christian missions that not only rivaled local nobles in terms of crop production, but also protected local Indians who were an untapped source of what one noble called "profitable" labor. The European royalty, who turned a blind eye to the events such as were portrayed in the film, ignored the greed exhibited by such noblemen.   The decline of the church's influence on European affairs is also shown, as it proved powerless to stop the degradation occurring in South America.   In the film, a Cardinal from Europe travels to South America to decide the fate of the missions in the region.   During a visit to several missions including Father Gabriel's "San Carlos" mission deep in the jungle, a Cardinal explains the powerless position of the church to prevent the impending doom that was to befall the missions in the region. The Cardinal also explains how the Jesuits were in grave danger of being expelled from Spain, Portugal, and France and that if they stayed in the mission to resist Portugal the cardinal explains that they would only expedite the Jesuits' expulsion from Europe, as a group insolent to government authority.   The Cardinal pleads with the Jesuits to leave the mission, but all refuse to go.   In the preparation to defend the mission from Portuguese troops, Rodrigo Mendoza renounces his vows and takes up the sword to protect the Guarani.   Father Gabriel on the other hand chooses to abstain from violence and puts himself in the hands of God. When Rodrigo goes before Father Gabriel to ask for his blessing in the upcoming battle, Father Gabriel replies "If might is right, then love has no place in the world; it may be so, but I have no strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo." Rodrigo Mendoza, the Guarani, and the other Jesuit priests who help him protect the mission are initially successful in repulsing the Portuguese, but the firepower of the Portuguese soldiers (they had muskets and cannon) proved too much for the mission's defenders. In a very poignant ending, Mendoza, along with the other Jesuit priests who chose to resist were killed, and Father Gabriel, leading his parishioners in a peaceful march against the Portuguese troops is killed as well.   It is probable that the Guarani who were not massacred by the Portuguese were enslaved. The film ends with the Cardinal writing a letter to the Portuguese king, explaining in mournful terms that the region was subjugated.

     I recommend this film not only for its historical merit, but also for its presentation of the politics that drove 18th century colonial powers to expansion, the politics of greed and power.   This film is both inspirational and gloomy, but that is often how real life is.   Real life does not always have a happy ending. Director Roland Joffe offers his own words about the film that certainly bring to mind some of the questionable things that were done during the time period, and that in some places continue to occur:

  "The events portrayed in this movie really happened. Probably not exactly in the way we show, but something very close to it. It was a simple but harrowing story about political realities vs. all that is best in human nature.   We are a strange animal, so often destroying what we love for selfish ends, and yet tantalized by the sense that there are other choices if only we had the strength to make them.   In the politics of four hundred years ago, we find the same questions we battle with today."