"All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
By Damian Arlyn
An elderly Catholic cardinal stares intensely at us, his hard facial features betraying an expression of complete ambiguity. Is he angry? Sad? Afraid? We don't know. After several seconds he begins to speak. He is dictating a letter to the pope, relaying details of a past event which the film proceeds to show in flashback. His narration explains how Jesuit priests, who set up missions in South America for the education and protection of the local natives, journeyed into the depths of the jungle "to bring the word of God to those Indians still living in their natural state and received in return, martyrdom." We then see one such cleric, stripped to the waist and wearing a makeshift crown of thorns on his brow, being tied to a wooden cross and carried by a group of these Indians (whom we later learn are called the Guarani) down to a river where he is thrown in. He floats away silently, still alive but seemingly resigned to his fate. We watch as he travels further downstream, a grotesque living crucifix adrift in a series of rough rapids, before sailing over the edge of an immense waterfall and plummeting to his death. Thus opens the breathtakingly beautiful and tremendously powerful historical drama The Mission (which celebrates its 25th anniversary today), one of the finest films I personally have ever seen.
Based on actual events that occurred in the territory that borders Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina in the mid-18th century (and, knowing Hollywood's track record for distorting history, no doubt embellishing it), The Mission primarily tells the story of two very different, and yet remarkably similar, men. The first is Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), a kind, noble and patient Jesuit priest who, after the death of his friend, decides to bravely enter the domain of the Guarani tribe. In one of many memorable and visually spectacular sequences, Father Gabriel climbs up the waterfall from the film's prologue, slipping and almost plunging to his own death in the process. His conquering of the falls is the first of many obstacles he must overcome in his quest to finish what his unlucky colleague began.
In a subsequent scene, Gabriel sits calmly on a rock and plays a sweet but elegiac little tune on his oboe as Guarani begin to slowly surround him with their weapons drawn. Though he notices them approach, he continues to play on, his face clearly betraying fear and yet his will proving strong and resolute. Suddenly one native shouts at him angrily, grabs the oboe, breaks it in two across his own knee and storms off. Another one picks up the pieces, examines the instrument as if trying to understand how such a lovely sound could come from it and meekly offers it back to Gabriel who tries to fix it before shaking his head. The native then takes Gabriel's hand and with the consent of everyone else present leads him back to their home. It is a phenomenal dialogue-free sequence about the universal allure of music and the kind of respect that can exist across vast ethnic, cultural and linguistic barriers. In courageously refusing not to be intimidated by these dangerous "savages" as well as not responding with anger or hostility to their destruction of his beloved property, Gabriel begins the first step in earning the trust and admiration of these understandably scared and suspicious people.
Gabriel begins to establish a mission named San Carlos in the heart of the jungle, a sanctuary where the Guarani can hear the Gospel and also be safe from the brutality of the slave traders who capture (and sometimes kill) them. It is here that the film introduces its other primary character: a mercenary named Captain Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) who is so notoriously ruthless that when he encounters father Gabriel in one of his many hunting excursions, Gabriel's assertion that they are "building a mission here to make Christians of these people" is met with the callous response, "If you have the time." However, when Mendoza discovers his younger brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn) in bed with his own fiancee, he angrily kills Felipe in a duel and, unlike his spiritual ancestor Cain, immediately regrets his fratricide afterward. Although the law can't touch him, Mendoza is consumed with guilt and punishes himself by wasting away in a cell refusing to eat or speak to anyone. Into his misery comes none other than Father Gabriel who, in a manner very similar to his initial encounter with the Guarani, bravely confronts Mendoza for the coward that he is (not only refusing to be intimidated by his threats but actually daring him to act on them) and offers him a chance at redemption. "For me there is no redemption," Mendoza laments. "There is no penance hard enough for me." Gabriel asks: "But do you dare try it?" to which Mendoza replies: "Do you dare to see it fail?"
What follows is another magnificent extended sequence wherein Mendoza accompanies Gabriel and a few other members of his order back into the jungle all the while dragging behind him a huge bundle of metallic weaponry (swords, shields, armor, etc) at the end of a rope. It even involves climbing the same waterfall (which becomes a sort of character in itself) Gabriel did. It all culminates in another dialogue-free scene of almost immeasurable emotion and profundity; indeed it's one of the most moving depictions of forgiveness I've ever seen on film (although there is a comparable one in Terrence Malick's latest opus The Tree of Life). Mendoza soon becomes an active part of the seemingly idyllic existence at San Carlos. Grateful for his "second chance" at life, he asks Father Gabriel what he can do in return. Gabriel hands him a Bible and we see Mendoza reading passages from the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians ("Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up…But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."). Indeed, much like Paul, who persecuted Christians only to become one of their greatest proponents, Mendoza transforms from a murderer and trader of the Guarani into their friend and advocate.
Having witnessed enough death in his life Mendoza swears off all violence (as is seen in a sequence where the Guarani invite him to help slay a boar they've hunted and he refuses) and even joins Gabriel's order vowing to protect and serve his fellow man. This, however, proves very difficult as the signing of the Treaty of Madrid reallocates the previously protected lands inhabited by the Jesuit missions to Portugal, which unlike Spain permits slavery. This leads to the section of the film where Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), the stoic priest who narrates the film, is sent by the pope to appraise the Jesuit missions and decide whether they should continue to fall under the protection of the Roman Catholic Church. In some emotionally charged scenes (where the disparity between good and evil is rarely so starkly drawn), the Jesuits defend the humanity of the Guarani and the virtues of the missions while the plantation owners assert the inferiority and animal-like natures of the Guarani and apply political pressure to Altamirano for a favorable decision. They are such despicable, sorry excuses for human beings that it actually borders on the comical.
Unfortunately, even after visiting the San Carlos mission and seeing the "paradise on earth" that the Jesuits and the Guarani have built together, Altamirano comes to the inevitable conclusion that in order to save the whole body (the body in this case presumably being the "body of Christ," or the church) one must sometimes hack off a limb (the limb being the missions), not unlike another pragmatic religious leader named Caiaphas who determined centuries earlier that it is "better that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish." He tells the Guarani that they must leave the mission, but they do not want to leave. It is their home. When they question the wisdom and authority of this priest, he asserts that they must learn to submit to the will of God. Confused, the Guarani say that it was the will of God that they came out of the jungle and built the mission and they don't understand why God has changed his mind. The Guarani decide to stay and fight. Altamirano tells the Jesuits that they must not fight with the Guarani but that they must instead return to Rome with him. Angry at this betrayal by the church, Mendoza literally takes up his sword again and, along with several other Jesuits (including a young Liam Neeson), joins with the Guranai in defending their home against the colonialists.
The only one who doesn't take up arms is Father Gabriel. Heartbroken at this turn of events, but still unwilling to abandon the Guarani to their doom, Gabriel chooses to stay with them, but he will not kill. On the eve of the impending battle, Mendoza comes to Gabriel to be blessed for his efforts, but Gabriel refuses to do so. "If you're right, you'll have God's blessing," he says. "If you're not, my blessing won't mean anything." The two men embrace and the climactic final showdown soon follows. Alas, the outcome is hardly unpredictable. Nearly all of the Guranai who resist are slaughtered. Mendoza and the other priests are killed in battle. Father Gabriel, who stages a nonviolent demonstration with many of the Guarani women and children, also is killed and his mission is burned to the ground.
Shortly thereafter, Altamirano is seen eating with the plantation owners and he is utterly sickened not only by the news of this massive loss of human life but by their ambivalence to it. "And you have the effrontery to tell me that this slaughter was necessary?" he asks. Calmly and coldly, they tell him that they believe it was. "We must work in the world, your eminence," one of them says. "The world is thus." To this Altamirano replies, "No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world," before gazing out the window and somberly admitting his own culpability in the affair. "Thus have I made it." The film concludes with Altamirano finishing his letter to the pope and, in one of my favorite post-credit movie codas (right up there with Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Young Sherlock Holmes), stares intensely back into the camera as he did in the film's opening image.
The Mission was written by Tony Award-winning playwright (A Man for All Seasons) and two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Bolt (Doctor Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons), whose credits also include other historical epics with decidedly intimate focal points such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bounty. The Mission was directed by the English filmmaker Roland Joffé, whose only prior feature film, The Killing Fields, won him much critical acclaim and seemed to signal the promise of a great director. Unfortunately, his career since The Mission has been notably unimpressive, with his failures (such as Super Mario Bros., The Scarlet Letter and Captivity) looming much larger than his successes. Nonetheless, in spite of its flaws, The Mission is an extraordinarily compelling piece of work with many superlative elements to recommend it. The performances are uniformly solid but Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro are especially good. The spiritual journeys of these two men are the real heart of the film and both actors imbue their parts with subtlety and soul. De Niro's reticent warrior is perhaps a bit more complex, but Irons' faithful Father Gabriel is no less interesting or sympathetic.
One of the things I love about The Mission is how it doesn't cast its lot with either character at the film's finale. Both men are clearly trying to do the right thing in an otherwise awful situation and even though they disagree as to what that is, the film doesn't judge the actions of either. The film also boasts some gorgeous locales beautifully rendered by cinematographer Chris Menges (who won an Academy Award for his efforts) and the highly evocative film score by legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone not only stands out as one of his best works but has become one of the most popular soundtracks around…even for those who don't typically notice/collect film music. The piece "On Earth as it is Heaven" (the tune played by Gabriel on his oboe early in the film) is a bittersweet melody that haunts much of the film's imagery and the celebratory choral "Guarani" theme (made up of exotic instruments and native-style chanting) lingers in the memory long after the film is over.
Although it received a handful of awards (including the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes) and numerous other nominations, The Mission was lukewarmly received when it was released in 1986. Nobody panned it but few critics praised it as a masterpiece either. Most labeled it merely mediocre and remained rather indifferent to it. Roger Ebert wrote that it felt "exactly like one of those movies where you'd rather see the documentary about how the movie was made" (incidentally, the DVD and Blu-ray release of The Mission includes the hour-long doc Omnibus, which chronicles the making of the film in case he, or anyone else, ever wants to actually do that; I have and although it is fascinating, I still prefer the film itself). Considered by many to be muddled, ponderous, pious and with characters who seemed more like "types" than fleshed-out human beings, it grossed a meager $17 million at the box office and faded into relative obscurity thereafter. Over the years, however, as more and more people have discovered this little-known treasure of a film, it has gained a somewhat more prominent reputation …particularly among religious folk who are drawn to its themes of redemption, forgiveness, faith, courage, love, compassion, goodness, evangelism, etc. In fact, the weekly Anglican publication Church Times picked it as No. 1 on a list of the "Top 50 Religious Films" and in 2004 Arts & Faith ranked it No. 54 on their "Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films."
Speaking only for myself, I find it to be an incredibly deep and thoughtful piece of work; indeed one of my favorite films. In the interests of full disclosure though, I should probably make it known that I am myself a Christian (though I don't belong to any particular denomination) and as such tend to respond favorably to stories that involve people who share my faith and the struggles that they deal with as they attempt to live it out. Many people already now this about me, but it's still a little nerve-wracking to admit that about myself because I realize it is not a popular thing to be right now. There are a lot of Christians out there who are making a lot of noise (as well as a lot of enemies) and as such people tend to lump us all in the same category.
As I believe Dr. Peter E. Dans observes in his book Christians in Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners, it is becoming more and more difficult to find positive portrayals of Christians in movies and TV and far more commonplace to see them depicted as sanctimonious, hypocritical, judgmental, right-wing ignoramuses (see movies such as Paul, Footloose and Easy A as well as TV shows such as 30 Rock, The Big Bang Theory and The Office). Consequently, a film such as The Mission, where the church may not come off particularly well but individual believers are depicted quite sympathetically, resonates with me simply because it goes against the recent trend.
I'd like to think, however, that I can still be objective enough to recognize a good movie (which I think The Mission is) when I see one, whether it tends to paint Christians in a good light or not. I am not particularly interested, for example, in so-called "Christian" movies, partially because they are essentially works of propaganda and I tend to respond to all propaganda the same (whether it propagates something I happen to agree with or not), but also because they tend to be as many critics (including this one and this one) have pointed out, pretty bad. Nonetheless, there are some films that I think could be classified as "Christian" (though I personally don't even really consider that a viable category) that don't fit the usual "faith-based" mold we have come to expect and which I think are far more powerful, existential and artistic (films such as Shadowlands, Chariots of Fire, The Exorcist, Dogma, Chocolat, etc). I think The Mission belongs with those films. It might not be a "Christian movie" per se (whatever that is) but it is a movie about Christianity and its admittedly checkered past (I am not naive enough to think that the real-life missions were as idyllic as they are depicted here) and it appropriates into its worldview many of the truths about life and human nature that draw me to the Christian ideology.