Theological Moviegoings: The Mission


When I first saw The Mission a few years ago, I was shocked that I had not heard it spoken of more often. Here was a PG-rated (that is, “family-friendly”), Oscar-nominated film worthy of serious artistic and spiritual consideration. It beautifully and movingly tells the story of 18th-century Jesuit missionaries in South America, and of their struggle to protect indigenous people from enslavement and exploitation by greedy colonial governments with the tacit consent of the politically weak Catholic leadership.

Although it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, The Mission lost a number of Oscars to Platoon, a film which is (among other things) far more uniformly critical of colonialism and its effects. By now, the conventional wisdom is that The Mission lacks the raw affective power of director Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984). Substantive criticism tends to focus on two things. First, that the film seems to sprawl across multiple loosely-connected storylines which never quite come together in a satisfying manner. Second, that despite its seemingly post-colonial point of view, The Mission still consistently privileges its European characters, in some sense effectively “othering” the natives as characters and as people.

The latter criticism is a fair one, in that it is well-worth being aware of the film’s priorities. Ultimately, though, what it amounts to above all is that Joffé has failed to make the movie that his critics would have made. Although The Mission ends with a call to action on behalf of the South American descendants of the natives in the movie, its central purpose is really to explore the choices faced by individual Christians when their spiritual values clash with the political needs of the institutionalized Church.

The former criticism is, more than anything, dependent on whether or not a particular viewer is caught up in the world of the film. There is, undeniably, a lot going on. Father Gabriel climbs a treacherous waterfall and treks deep into the jungle to plant a mission amidst a hostile tribe that has already made his predecessor a martyr. Meanwhile, Rodrigo prowls the same jungles, hunting natives to feed the profitable European slave trade while his lover carries on an affair with his brother. Finally, Altamirano arrives as the pope’s representative to decide whether or not the Church will continue to protect the Jesuit missions, although his choice seems predetermined. All of these subplots play out at a very deliberate pace, unfolding in their own compartmentalized segments before things begin to really come together.

From the opening moments of the film, we know the outcome of Altamirano’s visit. He dictates a letter to the pope which begins, “Your Holiness, the little matter that brought me here to the furthest edge of your light on earth is now settled, and the Indians are once more free to be enslaved by the Spanish and Portuguese settlers.” So much for suspense. Instead, the story becomes an extended flashback, with Altamirano’s voice-over to fill in period details. From amidst the web of thematic developments that weave their way towards resolution throughout The Mission, I would like to pluck three filaments as worthy of special attention: Rodrigo’s Pauline conversion, Altamirano’s dilemma, and the final philosophical clash between Rodrigo and Father Gabriel as the European soldiers advance on their remote mission.

Father Gabriel is the saintly hero of The Mission, but Rodrigo is its true protagonist. He is flawed character, and his spiritual struggles are easy to relate to. Not all of his actions are easy to sympathize with, perhaps most obviously the murder of his brother in a duel. It is this, at least, and not the ruthless enslavement of the native population, that leads him to a state of brokenness and ultimately salvation. Rodrigo’s temper leads him to do abhorrent things, but when it gets the better of him later, prompting him to challenge the lies of the Spanish and Portuguese colonial leaders, the audience secretly cheers.

We have a particular stake in Rodrigo’s spiritual journey, so potently symbolized by his struggle into the depths of the jungle dragging his weapons and armor as a burden behind him, because if even he can seek and find redemption, there is hope for everyone. The penance he undertakes is not suggested, or even encouraged, by the other Jesuits. In fact, one of the brothers even attempts to cut the burden free. From the standpoint of the Church, Rodrigo’s sins are already paid for, but he cannot be at peace with himself until he undertakes this task.

In doing so, Rodrigo at first rejects both the power of Christ’s atonement for his sins and the support of his Christian brothers, who stand ready to help carry him on his journey. However, when he reaches the top of the waterfall and confronts the people he has persecuted for so long, one of them steps forward and slices the armor free with his knife, pushing it off into the roiling water. Only then, as he weeps at this human reflection of divine grace, does Rodrigo realize that his own salvation is unconditional, not something to be earned through his own strength of body or of will.

However, Rodrigo’s journey from violent mercenary to Jesuit missionary is only half of the story. Complications arise with the arrival of Altamirano, who ought by rights to be the villain of this film. Instead, he wins our sympathy as it becomes more and more clear that he has no real power over the decision he was sent to make. His complacent cynicism, which had allowed him to rationalize that sometimes a limb must be hacked off in order to save the body, has left him completely unprepared for, as he puts it, “the beauty and the power of the limb [he has] come to sever.” Before his visit to the missions, he is detached and aloof; an impartial judge. Afterward, he is tormented, by turns delighted by what he sees, and horrified at what he must do to it.

Father Gabriel and the other Jesuits have come together with the jungle tribes to realize the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. It is the Church in its purest state, a peaceful commune devoted to worship and fellowship. Altamirano senses that perhaps he has not been sent merely to amputate a limb, but to carve out the very heart of the Church. Perhaps his very position shows that the heart of the Church has already stopped, and that what is left is a hollow shell made to dance, puppet-like, in support of the will of the State. In any case, although the outcome is inevitable, Altamirano begins to stall for time, praying for guidance even as he searches for a non-existent alternative.

The film’s last act centers on the destruction of the missions and the slaughter of their inhabitants. European troops arrive last at the smallest and most remote of the missions, where Father Gabriel and Rodrigo have argued heatedly over how to respond to their attackers. Rodrigo wishes to renounce his his vows and pick up his sword once again, while Father Gabriel is adamant that he must act as a priest, in love.

Although he refuses to endorse Rodrigo’s choice, Father Gabriel concedes that he must do what he thinks is right. “If might is right,” he says, “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.” Ultimately, Rodrigo, along with some of the other priests and a large group of natives, make the advancing troops pay dearly for their victory, but it remains a resounding victory and all of them are slaughtered. Meanwhile, Father Gabriel leads the remaining natives in a worship service before they, too, are cut down by gunfire and bayonets.

When the Jesuits all stay behind to die at their posts, Altamirano is left to bear lonely witness to glory of the missions and the travesty that befell them, and to live with his own complicity in their destruction. (“Thus have we made the world,” he tells the colonial governors. “Thus have I made it.”) This is, in fact, the metanarrative of the film itself. It is Altamirano’s account, told for our benefit as a call to action. This is underscored by the film’s final frame, which appears after the credits have ended. Altamirano appears in close-up, staring solemnly out at the audience. Shattering the fourth wall, his gaze dares us to ignore what we have seen and challenges us with a vision of what the Church, for one brief moment in history, achieved when it genuinely undertook to live up to the radical teachings of the gospels.

~ by Jared on October 13, 2009.

One Response to “Theological Moviegoings: The Mission

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