Roland Joffé’s classic leaves us with a taste of heaven—and a taste of hell
Whenever I teach World Civilizations II, which usually begins around the watershed year of 1492, I have my class watch the film The Mission. Since it came out in 1986, my students call it an old movie. I myself must have been ten or eleven years old when I first watched it, and it, along with La Bamba, helped to raise my awareness of my Anglo-Latino identity. But it is The Mission’s focus on nonviolence that has stayed with me for decades.
The film evokes a range of emotions. Ennio Morricone’s score, especially the theme “Gabriel’s Oboe,” continues to be performed by artists like Yo-Yo Ma. I can’t help but get teary because of the intuition that this might be what heavenly music actually sounds like.
Furthermore, I’ve long been intrigued with the fact that the legendary Catholic radical Daniel Berrigan was an advisor in the movie and even had a small role as one of the Jesuit priests. He would publish a diary of the experience.
The Mission is about the colonial Spanish Jesuit missions set up along the rivers at the contested border between the Spanish and the Portuguese empires, in what is now southern Brazil. While the story itself is largely fictional, it in a general way is rooted in actual events. As in fact was the case, the Jesuits journey through jungles and scale massive waterfalls (in the film, the majestic Iguaçu Falls) to minister to the Guarani. The audience learns how dangerous this evangelization effort really was: The film opens with a Jesuit priest tied to a cross and descending to his death on one of the waterfalls.
The protagonists are two Jesuit priests: Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), who is the founder of the main mission, and Father Rodrigo (Robert De Niro), a reformed mercenary and slave trader. Rodrigo’s redemption arc is at the heart of the film, including his acceptance by the Guarani, whom he had formerly enslaved.
As the Jesuit missions were profitable, the Spanish and Portuguese powers wanted to take control of the Jesuits’ land and limit their power. The film ends with the Spanish, in concert with the Church, enforcing the closure of the missions through military force. Some of the Jesuits, led by Rodrigo, take up arms to support the Guarani armed defense, whereas Gabriel refuses to fight because it would betray his belief in God’s love. At the film’s conclusion both Rodrigo and Gabriel are murdered by the Spanish forces. Students are usually in a daze at the end of the movie because they are not used to the protagonists, especially such meek and humble characters, slaughtered before the closing credits.
The film is centered on the action of the priests and at times the Guarani come across as background characters. But I think it is difficult to make this a strong point of criticism; the Guarani leaders and the children play small but pivotal parts in the central story line. Perhaps the film is guilty of a form of white saviorism―but it’s a tragically failed one. Berrigan points out that the movie is not “a kind of wide-screen National Geographic series: ‘Innocent Savages Brought to Your Coffee Table in Three Issues.’” This is one of the few films in which complicated Christian figures try to figure out how to navigate the shifts of history, sensitive to the plight of their indigenous friends. The few Jesuit priests who allied themselves with the Guarani are the heroes of the film; European empires and the institutional Catholic Church are the villains.
For his part, Berrigan liked the open-ended ending message of the film. The same debate over violent and nonviolent resistance played out in the book Merton: By Those Who Knew Him Best, published just before the film’s release, in 1984. Interestingly, the only two people of Latin American descent in the book—the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and the pacifist folksinger Joan Baez—disagree in its pages about nonviolence. Cardenal continued to find inspiration from Merton in his support and active involvement in the revolutionary Sandinistas government in the 1980s. But Baez disagrees with Cardenal’s assessment. For her, under no circumstances is revolutionary violence okay―she insists that if Merton were still alive he would not support the Sandinistas. In a way, Cardenal is channeling the righteous anger for social justice displayed in mercenary-turned-priest Rodrigo, while Baez stands in solidarity with Father Gabriel, who marches in nonviolent resistance among the Guarani toward Spanish bullets.
Like many of my students, I cannot comprehend Gabriel peacefully leading Guarani women and children into a shower of Spanish bullets. But lately reading more of Merton, Day, the Berrigans, Chavez, and Baez, I have seen Gabriel’s march as less a passive yielding to a fatalistic ending and more an intentional nonviolent confrontation with the violent powers that be. As Berrigan notes, the movie forces us to question our understanding of the world, the violence that permeates it, and how a God of love exists within it.
Michael Jimenez is associate professor of history at Vanguard University. He is the author of Remembering Lived Lives: A Historiography from the Underside of Modernity (Cascade Books, 2017). He is currently researching the influence of Cesar Chavez’s nonviolent activism and the recent history of Costa Rica.