With the election of Pope Francis I, a Jesuit and an Argentine, it seems apropos to consider Roland Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission which takes place in Paraguay in the 1750s and focuses on a group of Jesuit missionaries who work among the Guarani Indians. It is an extraordinary film.
Week Six of Lenten Film Fest: The Mission
As an aid to Lenten reflection over the next few weeks, Spero columnist Prof. Michael Martin offers readers some thoughts on a few of the films he uses in a Religion and Film course he offers every winter semester.
The film tells the story of a mission built by Jesuits and the Guaraní above the Iguazu falls, safely under Spanish protection. But when the Treaty of Madrid (1750) reapportions the land into the hands of the Portuguese, where slave trading is legal, the Guaraní become vulnerable to slavery and the Jesuits to political pressures which challenge their vows of obedience and their allegiance to the Gospel.
The Mission centers around two characters. Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), the leader of the mission, is a courageous man who braves death to spread the Gospel. His bravery and generosity of spirit endear him to the Guaraní and help to win them to Christ. Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) is a slave trader and mercenary who, after murdering his own brother in a duel, slips into despair. Father Gabriel visits Mendoza, trying to offer him comfort, which Mendoza does not want. Mendoza asks him, “Do you know what I am?” Father Gabriel tells him: “Yes. You are a mercenary. You are a slave trader. And you killed your brother. I know. And you loved him... although you chose a strange way to show it.” Mendoza grabs him, but Father Gabriel is unafraid. “God gave us the burden of freedom,” he says. “You chose your crime. Do you have the courage to choose you penance?” In what may be one the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema, Mendoza chooses and enacts his penance: dragging all of his implements of war—his armor, sword, muskets—for days if not weeks through the jungles he previously had hunted for slaves. It is excruciating to watch.
Mendoza then works at the mission, growing to love those he once persecuted, and, in time, becomes a Jesuit. In a beautiful scene at the mission, in voiceover, we hear Mendoza reading St. Paul’s Canticle to Love from 1 Corinthians 13, which begins “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…”
The crisis of the film comes when the former Jesuit Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McNally) decides in favor of giving the land of Guarani to the Portuguese. If he doesn’t, the Jesuits could risk excommunication and the Church, still reeling from the Reformation, could be further fragmented. The Jesuits of the mission, however, choose to break their vows of obedience and remain with Guaraní.
But the Cardinal’s decision does not avert fragmentation, particularly at the mission. Father Mendoza resolves to take up arms against the imperial powers (certainly a nod in the direction of Liberation Theology), whereas Father Gabriel refuses the way of violence, choosing instead to love to the end (a nod in the opposite direction). In the film’s climax, as a combined Portuguese/Spanish army attacks the mission, Father Mendoza, some of his brethren, and a host of Guarani warriors lose their lives fighting. Father Gabriel loses his as well, though more in the spirit of his vocation, holding the Monstrance in procession. He, along with some of the Guaraní, mostly women, children and the elderly, go willingly to slaughter, martyrs. Both Mendoza and Gabriel die for a cause—but is it the same cause? This is an important question the film asks and, wisely, refrains from answering.
But the film does speak to the incredible resolve and courage of the Jesuits, especially that in evidence during the period in which the film takes place. Their courage, dedication to Christ, missionary spirit, and love for the poor are clearly outlined in the film, much as in the last two weeks the courage, dedication to Christ, missionary spirit, and love for the poor have been exemplified in the first Jesuit pope.
Spero columnist Michael Martin PhD teaches English at Marygrove College. Follow him on Twitter: @pater_familiar.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.
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