The Mission (1986) has long been on my “too see list.” A lot of people I knew in college loved this movie for it’s explorations of faith (“the perfect movie to watch on Good Friday,” said one), it’s cinematography and the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. So I’ve finally redressed that wrong.
The film itself is made up of three parts.
In the first part, a tribe of aboriginal peoples in remote Brazil in the 17oo’s execute a Jesuit missionary, tying him to a cross which floats down the river and over a waterfall. The leader of the Spanish missionaries Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) takes personal responsibility and sets off on his own mission to the natives above the fall. In a long and harrowing scene, Gabriel climbs the falls barefoot. When he finally encounters the natives, Gabriel pulls out a flute, plays it, and wins their trust. The narrator says “With an orchestra, the Jesuits could have subdued the entire continent.” We later learn that the narrator is the emissary from the Vatican Altamirano. Gabriel establishes a community based on Christian principles and he and the natives live in peace. But all is not well. Slave catchers are venturing into the region capturing people from the community. Gabriel confronts the slave catcher Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert Deniro) but is unable to set free the villagers he caught.
The second part of the film begins back in the city where Mendoza learns that his lover is now romantically involved with his brother. In a rage, Mendoza kills his own brother in a street fight. Gabriel visits the city and is asked to speak with Mendoza in prison, as he may be the only one who could get through to the remorseful fratricide. Gabriel convinces Mendoza to join him at the mission. In another harrowing scene at the falls, Mendoza attempts to climb with a sack of his armor and weaponry tied to his waste. Despite the delays caused by this burden, Mendoza insists on carrying it as his penance. Upon arriving at the mission, the villagers recognized Mendoza as the slave catcher. In a touching and highly symbolic moment, one man draws a knife. Mendoza is entirely at his mercy but he merely cuts the rope to the bundle setting Mendoza free. In the weeks and months that follow Mendoza works hard at the mission and becomes a favorite among the Indians. He decides to become a Jesuit and swears an oath of obedience to Father Gabriel.
The final act of the movie puts the Jesuit missionaries at odds with Altamirano and the Portuguese who have gained control of the colony. The Jesuits lead Altamirano on tours of the missions showing that they are Christian communities where native Indians are learning European culture and creating profitable self-sustaining communities. The Portuguese plantation owners of course see this as a threat to their plans of gaining free land and free labor. Altamirano, a true Pilate-figure, washes his hands of the situation and sides with the land-owners. Mendoza breaks his vow of obedience and decides to fight to protect the mission from aggressors. Gabriel must stay on the side of love. “If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.” In the culminating scenes, Rodrigo and several other priests lead the Indians in a defense against the Portugeuse militia. The succeed at first but cannot overcome military training and weapons. Meanwhile, Gabriel leads a final prayer services with many of the villagers. Even as he falls to a gunshot, another man takes up the cross and carries on. The mission is a success even as it is destroyed.
I found this a beautiful and moving film. Even DeNiro who I usually don’t like is good in his period costume. Sure, when he talks he still sounds like a mumbling city thug, but he doesn’t speak often and his facial expressions are spot on to the emotion of the moment. Jeremy Irons, a young Liam Neeson, and Ray McNally as Altamirano are also great in their roles.
The Mission at imdb.com
Washington Post review