The Mission (1986)

I first saw The Mission, Roland Joffé’s epic about a  doomed Jesuit mission in Eighteenth Century Paraguay, the Summer after my junior year of college. These days, I see a lot of movies, but I rarely if ever go to a movie theater. Back then, especially in the Summer when I was bored, I would usually make a point of going out to see whatever got good reviews in the local newspaper.

I have previously written about the damaging effects a palpably malevolent film like The Omen can have on the mind of a child. A young adult, in turn, can enjoy a sumptuous, big-budget movie in a way a middle-aged adult can’t. Back in 1986, The Mission, which stars Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, and which was filmed on location at Iguazú National Park in Argentina, grabbed me right from the very first scene.

Guaraní Indians, who would later convert to Christianity, only to be betrayed by the Catholic Church, have strapped a Jesuit priest to a wooden cross. They push him into the water. In the background we hear the rapids, then we see it, the Iguazú Falls, millions of tons of water lashed into a boiling fury, and the site of the priest’s martyrdom as he’s swept away to his doom. In the next scene, Father Gabriel, another Jesuit played by Jeremy Irons, has figured out what will help him win the Guaraní over to the church, music. A gaunt, aesthetic man, he straps a knapsack to his back, and climbs the rocks hundreds of feet above falls, barefoot. Father Gabriel is fearless. All death, either by falling onto the rocks below, or at the hands of the Guaraní, means is sainthood. Once above the falls, he does what no practical man would ever consider. He reaches into his backpack, and takes out his oboe, one of the most difficult of all instruments to learn, and plays the most beautiful solo in any movie until the death of Weronika in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique 5 years later.

Try to imagine what a great country the United States would be if every gun nut traded in his AR-15 for an oboe.

The Mission doesn’t have any gun nuts, strictly speaking, but it does have Captain Rodrigo Mendoza. A mercenary and a slave-trader played by Robert De Niro, Mendoza not only exploits the Guaraní, capturing batches of Indians in large nets, almost as if they king salmon, he kills his own younger brother in a fit of jealous rage after he catches him sleeping with Carlotta, his fiancée. Carlotta fears Rodrigo, who we might just as well rename “Cain” but loves Felipe, who, like Abel, finds that his offering is more pleasing to the Lord than his brother’s. At age 20, I found De Niro’s Mendoza, with his black hair, full beard, and intense gaze, the very image of a badass. He scared me, but he doesn’t scare Father Gabriel. “Are you laughing at me?” the slave-trader says to the Jesuit, who has briefly returned to the European city below the falls. “Yes, I’m laughing at you,” the priest responds. “You’re a coward.” Since a man with a sword and the all consuming guilt that comes from murdering your brother over a woman is no match for a man with an oboe and a righteous faith in God, Mendoza agrees to follow Father Gabriel above the falls to do penance. Cain returns to the Garden of Eden, only this time not as Satan, but as a guardian angel, becoming a ferocious defender of the people he once preyed on as if they were no more than animals.

The Garden of Eden, however, will be destroyed, even without original sin. Cain, Mendoza, has been redeemed. Capitalism and imperialism have not. The Jesuit mission above the falls, where the Guaraní build musical instruments of such quality that they’re sought out by the finest orchestras in France and Italy, has become what Noam Chomsky would later call “a bad example.” European imperialism, which was at its genocidal height in 1750, could not tolerate a successful worker’s cooperative, even deep in the jungle in South America. After the country of Spain yields the territory to Portugal, Don Cabeza and Don Hontar, the Spanish and Portuguese governors, instruct Papal emissary Cardinal Altamirano to recall Father Gabriel and the Jesuits, and close down their all too successful experiment in Christian socialism. The outcome is foreordained. Altamirano is no monster. He’s much worse, a moderate who’s willing to compromise. Seeing the Jesuit order under attack in Europe, not only by the absolute monarchies of France and Spain, but by the incipient Enlightenment, he decides to “hack off a limb to save the body,” to destroy the mission to protect the church. All that remains is for Spanish and Portuguese troops to march above the falls and slaughter anybody, including Father Gabriel and Rodrigo Mendoza, who resists.

I do not know if political correctness would allow a film like The Mission to be made today. The idea of white men like Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro acting as benevolent protectors of the Indians would be “problematic.” The film so overwhelmed me as a 20-year-old, however, that it was partly responsible for my getting involved in CISPES and the Central American Solidarity movement the next year. I just couldn’t understand the lukewarm review Roger Ebert gave it. Ebert, who I normally respected, actually made fun of Father Gabriel’s anguished declaration that he “didn’t have the strength to live in a world where might is right and love has no place.” Why didn’t Roger Ebert, like me, think The Mission was the greatest movie ever made? Was I missing something?

No, Roger Ebert, who was 44-years-old in 1986 was missing something, namely the idealism of his youth. Sadly, at age 50, after having seen The Mission for a second time, only this time not on the big screen, but at home on a 24-inch Dell ultra sharp monitor, I’m missing the same thing, the naive ability to suspend criticism and allow yourself to be enraptured by a work of art before judging it. Like Roger Ebert in 1986, I now see all of The Mission’s faults. In 1986, I had no idea what instrument Jeremy Irons played at the beginning of the movie, only that it produced the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. In 2015, I not only know that it’s an oboe. I also know, by reading the writings of oboe enthusiasts on the Internet, that Irons didn’t even take a few hours to learn how to mimic the proper technique. Alas, neither Jeremy Irons nor Robert De Niro, great actors though they were, and are, gives a particularly inspired performance. Iguazú National Park, in turn, looks like a movie set, and I agree with Ebert when he dismisses the film as beautiful but empty.

“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. There isn’t a moment in “The Mission” that is not watchable, but the moments don’t add up to a coherent narrative. At the end, we can sort of piece things together, but the movie has never really made us care.

Perhaps when you lose the naive enthusiasm of youth, however, you gain the ability to take a film apart and imagine how you would do it yourself. I saw too many movies in my 20s, listened to too much classical music, and read too many books without bothering to figure out what I wanted to say myself. As T.S. Eliot writes in The Dry Salvages “we had the experience but missed the meaning, and approach to the meaning restores the experience in a different form.” The Mission,for all its faults, is an attempt to portray indigenous resistance to European imperialism, to bring re-imagine a space in time where the meeting of two cultures, the Catholic and the indigenous, could have laid the foundation for a civilization where might did not make right and where love did have a place in the world. “The past experience revived in the meaning,” Eliot continues in The Dry Salvages, “is not the experience of one life only but of many generations.” A better film, one that you could surrender to even without the naive idealism of a 20-year-old, would give voice to the many generations of the indigenous destroyed by European imperialism. That voice, beautifully alluded to be Father Gabriel’s oboe, but as of yet, still mute, would speak in a music not yet written.

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