In the first half of the 18th century the Jesuit order, an evangelical and zealous Catholic branch of Franciscan monks, undertook missionary work to the Indian tribes in South American jungles. Impressive by any standard, they unabashedly sacrificed comfort, well-being and their own lives for the sake of preaching the Gospel to the aboriginals. The monks’ actions, though, were done during an historical period that, try as they might to separate themselves from it, would have a hand in their labor. Europe came to the New World and with it a hurricane of politics and problems.
By the beginning of the 18th century the strength and fame of the Roman Catholic Church had begun to fade. She had become a figurehead for an idea, with some 800 years of history as her only support. The armies of European countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, and even England had become far superior to the Church’s and in the past 200 years the Church herself had been torn and tattered by revolution and Reformation. Countries like Spain, Italy, and Portugal were still Catholic and so were bound under the authority of the Pope. The New World explorations and colonies brought a new stage to light. How much could the word of the Pope matter on a different continent? How could his jurisdiction reach across an ocean? But for the time being the pontiff still had some pull, albeit not nearly what it had been.
One of the most problematic issues of the New World was the flourishing slave trade. The two most prominent countries in South America, Spain and Portugal had differing statements on the trafficking of the aboriginal and how it related to the church. The Jesuit monks had established communities for the converted Indians where they taught them the classical arts and principles of Western civilization. But these converts were still potential money to traders. The Spanish declared these missions to legally exist beyond the slave trade. But Portugal saw them only as a problem. The Jesuits were, after all, often Spanish and not their own. Portugal refused to protect them in their South American territories.
In 1750 the Treaty of Maltese would upset the delicate balance the Jesuits had achieved in the New World. Portugal and Spain redrew the lines of territories in South America and in so doing placed many of the Jesuit missions in Portuguese territory. The law gave them no protection from the slave traders. The Church in Rome was now in a political nightmare. If they were to make a stand against the Treaty they would, it seemed, have the political gravitas of a notable military. She had none in comparison to the well-funded armies of Spain and Portugal. Equally troubling was the inevitable fact that if the Jesuits stood against the Portuguese in South America, the act would be seen as defiance of the crown. The Church foresaw the entire Jesuit order being condemned by Portugal, and consequently France, Spain, Italy, and who knew where else. There was no clean outcome.
It is in this historical setting that Roland Joffe’ places The Mission. Joffe’s film is, if anything can be plainly said about it, a grand and difficult movie. It is the story of a mission built above the Iguazu Falls by Spanish Jesuit Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) and his fight to defend it by appealing to the visiting Cardinal Altamirano (McAnally) who is sent by the Pope to decide if the missions ought to be kept against the will of the Portuguese or done away with.
Altamirano narrates the movie in writing a letter to the Pope after the events of The Mission, but when he enters into the story during the second act it becomes increasingly clear that he has been sent to close the missions. Joffe makes Altamirano a joke of an authority. He enters into a rainy, dirty South America wearing velvet and dainty European silk. Perhaps the most foreign character in the film, he is the judge from outside the reality of the situation. He is, quite clearly, a fool. Critics of the movie have noted that the Roman Church never sent a cardinal to close the missions, but it was a political ambassador of Spain and Portugal. Joffe, though, quite cleverly shows that Altamirano is no real cardinal. He says upon his arrival that “I myself was once a Jesuit” and yet the story makes clear that he is nothing like the pious Father Gabriel. He lives by the sword of politics. He is truthfully a political ambassador. Nothing more.
But Altamirano is not a simple fool. Even as a politician, he is torn by what he has to do. The Guarani, the Indians of the region, stir up in him a morality that has clearly been long dead. Gabriel brings Altamirano to his mission above the falls and the cardinal says in his narration, “Your Holiness, a surgeon, to save the body, must often hack off a limb. But, in truth, nothing had prepared me for the beauty and power of that limb that I had come here to sever.”
The first act of the movie is centered in an entirely different story line. The movie begins with the death of the first missionary to venture above the falls to the Guarani. In an eerily silent scene the Guarani carry the priest on a cross to the river and push him to the falls. Father Gabriel, the priest who sent this missionary, then makes the climb up the waterfall and into the Guarani territory. Gabriel’s ascent begins a heavy theme in Joffe’s film: height. It is no coincidence that Joffe places the Guarani people above the falls. Or that a good ten minutes of the first act alone are scenes without dialogue of the priests climbing the rocky cliffs beside the falls. Gabriel himself has a name of height, a name of heaven. When we first see Gabriel, in a mission below the falls, he is teaching Guarani children, clothed in white like angels, how to play instruments. Joffe quickly makes sense of what he is doing with music. Once in the Guarani territory, Gabriel quiets a war party hunting him with only his oboe. The angel’s evangelism is music, and Joffe uses this theme to tie together his three acts. Throughout the film entire scenes are devoted to hundreds of Guarani, in white, singing ecclesiastic pieces taught by Gabriel. Even when being attacked by Portuguese soldiers, Gabriel leads the people out singing holding a silver cross like a sword. His song, his evangelism, his faith is his warfare.
In the first movement, Joffe focuses on the mercenary and slave trader Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro). While Gabriel is ministering to the Guarani, he encounters Mendoza hunting for the people above the falls, territory protected against the trade. Seeing Gabriel, he leaves and returns to Asuncion below the falls. Here Mendoza finds that his fiancée is in love with his brother and, seeing them together, meets his brother in a duel and kills him. Mendoza is crushed by his own action and turns himself into the church since the nature of the duel puts him beyond the reach of the state. Here Gabriel finds him and confronts him, “God gave us the burden of freedom. You chose your crime. Do you have the courage to choose your penance? Do you dare to do that?…Do you dare to see it fail?”
Synonymous with authority, height becomes a larger and larger issue in the film. Mendoza means tall, cold mountain. Gabriel comes down from his mission to confront a man who has, by nature of the duel, been placed above the law. There is no civil authority high enough, but Gabriel is a different man. Accepting his offer, Mendoza climbs the waterfall to the Guarani with Gabriel and his fellow priests. The penance he chooses is to tie himself to a net full of armor and weapons, the stuff of his life. It is no accident that it is the same type of net he trapped the Guarani in earlier in the film. Slowly, painfully, and silently Mendoza climbs and falls and climbs again till he stumbles, completely covered in mud, to the Guarani where Gabriel is sitting. In another stirring scene a Guarani warrior nearly cuts Mendoza’s throat, but instead cuts the filthy pack from his back and pushes it into the water. Mendoza has climbed for penance. He has climbed for life. And it is only above the falls that he can finally live, but only if he dies first. The Indian doesn’t cut his throat, but he kills him in an entirely different way. He throws Mendoza’s life into the river, and Joffe has already shown that the river is about ends and new beginnings, about crucifixions and ascensions. Mendoza’s sobbing turned to laughter makes perfect sense then. He is alive. He is a new man. It is quite soon after that he takes the vows of the Jesuit order and becomes a priest.
While the second and third acts seem a different story, focusing on the consequences of the Treaty of Maltese and the Cardinal’s decision, the themes of the first make sense of the connection. First, Altamirano means, “to look from a height”. The Cardinal enters as another facet to the question of authority and height. Who is highest? Is Altamirano actually a judge above the Guarani? In the formal court to decide the fate of the missions, Gabriel addresses the Cardinal and says, “Your Eminence, below the falls, the jungle, if it has to be divided, may be divided among the Spanish and the Portuguese. But above the falls, it still belongs to God and the Guarani.” Joffe is intent on showing a clash between Altamirano and Gabriel, but not a head to head confrontation. The issue is not who owns what for these two, but by whose authority they act.
Altamirano is a man filled with the politics and contentions of the “civilized” world. He is, in a great way, an image of Europe as a whole. In his narration he says, “I had to wonder whether these Indians would not have preferred that the sea and wind had not brought any of us here.” Joffe’s portrayal of the Cardinal as a man out of his place among the Guarani is this very question. What does the City of Man have to do with part of the City of God? And that is exactly what the jungle above the falls is. The crucified man comes down from above the falls. Altamirano calls Gabriel’s mission an attempt to “create a paradise on earth.” Gabriel sees the land above the falls as “God’s land”. Altamirano is misplaced because he comes to a place that he does not belong. He has entered a New World, not his own.
Gabriel believes in the reality and nearness of Heaven. He acts by prayer, by music, by obedience to God because he sees Portugal, Spain, and even the Church as overruled by the authority of God. He is a man of the City of God, a Gabriel who fights in an entirely different way than Altamirano or the Portuguese.
In the third act, Gabriel, Mendoza, and Father Fielding (Neeson) choose to stay with the mission against the order of the Cardinal. As the Portuguese scale the mountain to take the mission, Mendoza comes to Gabriel to renounce his vows, allowing him to defend the mission with the sword. In the confrontation with Mendoza, Gabriel says, “If you die with blood on your hands you betray everything we’ve done. You promised your life to God. And God is Love.” The issue has again come down to what is higher. Mendoza has clearly become a new man who has ascended, but he raises a difficult question. When the City of God is confronted, as the mission is, by the City of Man, is it wrong to fight it off in a bloody way?
The final conversation between Mendoza and Gabriel is a fascinating one. Mendoza comes to ask for Gabriel’s blessing but is denied it. Gabriel says, “If you’re right, you’ll have God’s blessing. If you’re wrong, my blessing won’t mean anything. If might is right then love has no place in the world. It may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that. I can’t bless you.”
In Matthew 26:52 Jesus tells Peter, “…all they that take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Gabriel and Mendoza take up different swords for the same cause, and yet they raise a question to end the film that I first heard from an old friend. Could Jesus be talking about different swords? Gabriel, the man of Heaven, falls by a different sword than he took up, and Mendoza has already died earlier in the film by the hand of a Guarani warrior by a sword not like the one he first held as a mercenary. His death at the end of the film seems almost insignificant, not nearly as strong as the image of him kneeling with a knife on his throat, covered in mud; a man of dirt; an Adam.
The questions Joffe raises are difficult and moving for any viewer. Christians bear a distinct responsibility as viewers. We believe that Christ has died and ascended for this world, for this ground, and these people. We cannot brush aside questions like Joffe’s. Christ’s world, this world, is full of newborn babies and striking lightning. We worship a God who holds both in the same hand.