Sick of the news? Sick of trying to figure out what is true and what is a play put on for our distraction? Sick of learning things that twist up everything you thought was true? Sick even of bible study and church? Take a day and watch “The Mission.” Its influence on your future course of action will be as clear as mud at movie’s end, but you’ll have taken in a bit of visual and musical art and you’ll be made to think, if only a little. And don’t worry, it ain’t a tear-jerker because as beautiful as it is, it’s slightly off-target in the emotional-punch category. It’s like “The Green Berets”–only for God. It’s a must-see for warriors and Christians alike.
This film was made in 1986 and is directed by Roland Joffe, a British Jew who attended a Jesuit boarding school in London. He also directed such classics as “The Killing Fields” about journalists covering the Khmer Rouge takeover in Cambodia. Tell me again how it’s not about left vs. right, Republican vs. Democrat, or capitalism vs. communism. The heck it’s not. Communism equals death. That one is worth a second viewing. What’s not worth a second viewing is Joffe’s version of “The Scarlet Letter” with Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. It’s simply terrible and ventures far outside Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary masterpiece. “There Will Be Dragons” depicts the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and someday I’ll give it a view.
In “The Mission” Jeremy Irons stars as Jesuit priest and missionary founder Father Gabriel. The first Jesuit Father Gabriel sent “above the falls” was essentially crucified upside down by being strapped to a cross and sent over the Iguazu Falls, which together with the Iguaca Falls makes the largest waterfall in the world. The native Guarani weren’t much for outsiders. Now, Father Gabriel must go “above the falls”—get it? To a place and people who live in a Garden of Eden as if they had not fallen from God’s grace, even though they don’t know God. But never mind that, Father Gabriel subdues the natives through their love of music with his oboe playing.
Robert DeNiro plays Captain Rodrigo Mendoza. He is engaged to be married, but while he’s off doing merc stuff and capturing natives like the Guarani Indians to be sold into slavery, his intended falls in love with his younger half-brother, played by Aiden Quinn. Rodrigo does not “find” the couple in bed; he goes searching to find the couple in bed. He then proceeds to kill his brother in a duel and to break the heart of his former fiancée. He cannot forgive himself, and because he’s the Portuguese head-of-state’s slave trader, the law cannot or will not touch him. Father Gabriel is called in to see if he can get through to Mendoza, who’s suicidal by hunger strike. Father Gabriel calls him a coward and asks if he’s afraid to see his redemption succeed. Mendoza asks the Jesuit if he’s afraid to see it fail. It’s a brilliant line, well delivered, and prescient.
Father Gabriel picks up Father John Fielding, played by a young Liam Neeson and another priest, and the team head back up “above the falls” with their charge, Mendoza. The movie does not indicate who came up with the penance of Rodrigo having to hump his suit of armor and sword up the waterfall, but it makes for fantastic cinema. Instead of pushing a rock uphill for all eternity like Sisyphus, we see Rodrigo dragging a netted ball of his instruments of war uphill for a seeming eternity. What veteran can’t relate to the humping, pushing, pulling, dragging through the mud and the water. Father John wants the penance done with, but Father Gabriel says not until Rodrigo himself believes his penance is over. When they arrive at the village and the Guarani do not kill him, Rodrigo weeps and we understand that he has been forgiven and that he forgives himself. The Guarani cut him free of his burden and the chest plates, Kevlar, and knives of yore go tumbling into the river—for now, anyway.
Rodrigo helps the Jesuits build the mission and along the way, he reads the bible and studies to take his vows. He agrees to obey Father Gabriel as head of the Order (The Society of Jesus, though that’s never mentioned in the script) and becomes both a Jesuit and a welcome member of the Guarani community. More and more, the Jesuits resemble Special Forces in Vietnam, despite their simple uniform of brown tunics and sandals, and the natives are reminiscent of the Montagnard people. Only this time, they’re working for God, not the destruction of communism, though in my mind, those missions are one in the same.
Some contextual history is in order here. Although boiled down to a view of two Jesuit 18th Century missions, the movie is based on several missions that were established by Jesuits in this region—namely the jungle of northeastern Argentina and eastern Paraguay. The lands were under Spanish control when the missions were founded. Although the Spanish claimed not to allow slavery, they participated in the trade, purchasing slaves from the Portuguese who did allow it, and turning a blind eye to having the natives of Spanish colonies captured and sold into slavery by the likes of Roderigo before his conversion. Remember, Paul persecuted Christians before he became one of their most ardent supporters and leaders. Roderigo’s story somewhat mirrors Paul’s, including the self-flagellation of unending mental penance and physical denial.
Unfortunately for the Jesuits and their indigenous brethren—and they did take natives into the order, as is portrayed in the movie by the leader of another mission that is quite industrious and prosperous—the Spanish turned over these lands to Portugal at the 1750 Treaty of Madrid. Now, what could be more threatening to tax-hungry heads of state than an order of priests that organize the natives into self-sustaining communities that are centered on God and freedom, freedom to live how you want (within the constrains of the community) and freedom to come to God in your own unique way? What if this community-based way of life spread from mission to mission and—horrors—into the population at large? Was this why the Jesuits were thrown out of every country they set up missions in? We know that freedom is not the natural order of life; the natural order of the world is power at the expense of others.
Irish actor Ray McAnally plays Cardinal Altamirano, sent by the Pope to determine which missions would stay and which would go, when in actuality it was simply a show of caring for the Jesuits and their work. The decision was already made that the Jesuit missions could not survive because their increasing power around the world was causing a schism in the Church, despite the Jesuits being the boots on the ground of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In historical fact, this person would have been sent by the Jesuit Superior General (tell me the Jesuits weren’t militant; they’re led by a general). In the movie, in perhaps the second most moving scene, the Indians are told that they must return to the jungle and not fight, and that it’s God’s will. The Indians say they never should have trusted the missionaries, they don’t want to go back to the jungle, the devil lives in the jungle, and it was God’s will that they come out of the jungle into the mission. They say they will stay; Father Gabriel says he will stay with them. The Cardinal had wanted to take the Jesuits out with him; they refused.
But how to fight is the question. Father Gabriel says love and peace are God’s way and any other method of resistance is not of God. Well, OK, but a combined force of Spanish and Portugues troops are rappelling up the walls of the falls. Father Rodrigo renounces his vows and accepts his sword, which was retrieved by a Guarani boy who looks up to the priest from the river where it has lain waiting all this time.
Listen, I’m not ignoring the Hollywood speak in this film, or what has since happened to what was once, one can only assume, a truly Godly order. But there are numerous images throughout the movie, when knowing what we know today, we can’t help but think about the Paul approach of denial of all things physical and how detrimental that can be to these men and their communities. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, the majority of the disciples were married. These are virile men sent out into the middle of nowhere to interact with communities that lack both body consciousness and sexual morality. The women take Father Rodrigo away to paint his chest. We and Father Gabriel know he’s being accepted into the tribe, but there’s a lot of giggling by the women with this former ladies man. We also see the boy who hands him his sword then sitting at the foot of his bed facing out. Whenever you have two people anywhere near a bed in Hollywood, it’s loaded imagery. We assume he’s…what? Keeping guard while he waits for Rodrigo to take up the sword? Is he offering himself as a sacrifice for the men of war? Are they hinting at the pedophilia we now know was or is rampant in the Catholic Church and even among the Jesuits? I prefer to take the film at face value, but I’m not naïve to any subliminal context.
So, Father Gabriel goes about waging peace. He and a very few natives pray with him. Meanwhile, Rodrigo, John, and the rest of the Jesuits renounce their vows and get busy readying for war. The native warriors know how to fight, and Rodrigo introduces them to some Western methods of warfare. They infiltrate the enemy camp at night and steal munitions, they plan a water ambush, they set a charge to blow up the bridge to their village. They fight valiantly, but none survive. Father Gabriel fights the onslaught by holding mass. The heavenly singing does cause the majority of enemy soldiers to pause and theoretically ask what it is they think they’re doing firing on a mission, but the officer in charge snaps himself and the rest of the troops out of their reverie. These Godly people must be slaughtered. He uses other natives to shoot flaming arrows into the village to burn the palm frond roofs of the buildings.
Father John is shot leading the water ambush. Father Rodrigo is shot in the back rescuing a child from the bridge he’s preparing to blow, but that doesn’t kill him. No, what kills him, sort of, is the half-dozen shots to the chest by the enemy when he sees that they’ve cut his fuse. The boy could have retrieved his armor while he was sloshing around after the sword. Rodrigo still has enough strength to momentarily watch Father Gabriel leading the singing congregation through a hail of bullets holding the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament…uh, the stemmed, sun-shaped thing with Eucharist inside. Father Gabriel is killed in a blood-splash shot to the neck. Some other congregant picks up the fallen guidon, I mean monstrance, and continues on into the hailstorm of bullets.
If I sound sarcastic, it’s because I am. Loving God does not mean committing suicide, even by some stoic, cinematically elegant but fundamentally flawed concept that one sacrifices themselves for God and the greater good of mankind by not taking up arms against evildoers. It’s still suicide. Package it up anyway you like. It’s still sacrificing a good life for an evil life, and it doesn’t make the life of those who survive better. Yes, Jesus sacrificed his life for love of us, and yes, there is no greater love than giving one’s life for one’s brothers. But we are not God. We can act Godly, but how is suicide by army any different than any other type of suicide. Listen, if you’re going to go out in a hail of bullets, for the love of God, do so fighting. Go down swinging. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I don’t care. You’ll find me at the eighth layer of hell, with everyone else who said, You know what? There’s a time for war, and when someone is coming to enslave the people you love, that is the time for war.
There are survivors: a few native children. One imagines that they hide away in the jungle in a “Lord of the Flies” existence, without the love, wisdom, and guidance of adults and elders. When councils are held to determine the fate of the missions, one of the arguments used against the Guarani is that they practice infanticide. Father Gabriel admits that they do, and he defends the practice because one adult can only carry one child when they are running through the jungle, so if a third child is born it is instantly killed. It’s barbaric, pragmatic, and the Jesuits are defending it, just like they defend abortion today. Life is complicated. Men are complicated. For those men who can follow in Father Gabriel’s wake, may you be an inspiration to the rest of us. As for me and mine, we’ll be looking up to you with a chestful of bullets knowing we tried, and we, too, loved God, and were probably far more aware of our sinful nature. Come to think of it, Father Gabriel admits that he cannot live in a world without love and peace. Therefore, he does commit suicide. What’s the difference? European fatalism, and the fatalism of European directors, should be kept in Europe and its colonies because here in America, we win. Period. We have to win. The freedom of mankind depends upon it.
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