Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Mission's Pointed Question

I first learned of through a friend who claimed it as one of his favorite movies. Directed by Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Scarlet Letter), this film features a set of interesting Hollywood luminaries grappling with one of the most challenging issues faced by the church throughout its history, including our current era. The Mission does a superb job of setting up the issues.


Here is a few review from

I found myself emotionally devastated after seeing this film the first time. The film packs a punch in its contrast between the beauty of nature and human self-sacrifice on the one hand and the depths of human self-interest and ruthlessness on the other. Its theme is as relevant today as it was in the 1600s - what are the consequences of my actions, and what price must be paid by me and by others as a result? The film depicts several characters with whose choices the viewer can identify - the missionary, the repentant killer, the papal legate - and gives no easy answers to the choices that confront them. But the fact that there are no easy answers doesn't let them off the hook. In the end, they all have to take responsibility for what they do or fail to do.

The magnificent visuals of the Iguassu Falls and the moving score by Morricone (surely his best) all contribute to an unforgettable picture.

Listening to the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Untouchables, and 500 other films and television shows) this morning is what prompted me to write about this film today. The CD begins with a song titled "On Earth As It Is In Heaven" which is heartbreaking in its beauty and a perfect setup for the story.

The time frame of the story is the 1600's, and takes place in South America during a period when the Spanish conquistadores were simultaneously engaging in slave trade and in mission work. In this film, Irons plays Father Gabriel, a Jesuit priest and founder of a mission somewhat inland, above the falls, and succeeds in sowing the seeds of the Gospel to a remote tribe whose history has included killing all outsiders.

Robert DeNiro begins the film as a slave trader, but when his life bottoms out (he is imprisoned after killing his brother) Irons befriends him and leads him to liberation after a dramatic penance. De Niro turns from his former life to become a priest and help with the mission.

Here is how another imdb reviewer viewed the film:

While at college I was given the assignment of producing a 30 minute talk on the 'Guarana Republic' which is off course the subject matter of this movie. Hailing from the Protestant part of Europe I had never even heard about this aspect of Jesuit missionary work before, but as I researched the matter I became fascinated. So when I heard that a movie had been made about this topic I went to see it as soon as possible. Knowing how the film industry tended to treat historical events I was somewhat suspicious, but I was pleasantly surprised. This movie instantly became one of my all time favourites. I think the subject matter is handled sensitively and sensibly and the cinematography is stunning. What also impressed me was the clever way in which this story, which in reality spanned several generations, was compressed into a period of about ten years without becoming unbelievable. Even in a two hour movie there is a limit on what one can touch on, but I think that a good balance between dialogue, adventure, action, and character development, was struck. Even so if the movie would have lasted another hour I would still have been happy (perhaps even happier).

The Mission raises a number of issues which have confronted the church -- including situations in which the church has behaved badly. First is the issue of slavery. DeNiro the slave trader has no qualms about going on raiding parties to take captive the primitive people living in the forests of South America. He is making a killing at the practice. It's "good business." The State has no qualms either because these are not people. They are more like animals than human.

Father Gabriel seeks to demonstrate that these are people with souls and that they have value. An emissary from the Pope is sent to make a verdict about the situation, because if these are people, then buying and selling them as slaves is unconscionable. The business interests, however, have a vested interest in keeping their businesses profitable, and it would be favorable if the Church would decide these are not people.

Sadly, despite the efforts of the Jesuits to show that these were peoples who were responding to God, who loved worship, had even changed their ways, the verdict was that enslavement could continue.

As a consequence of the decision, armies are sent upstream to take captive all the natives who have been helping build the work of the mission. How does one respond, seeing armies of men with weapons approaching? That is the predicament.

DeNiro comes from a background that understands the ways of the world. He reverts to what he was, ready to lay down his life fighting the incursion. He similarly persuades Liam Neeson, another Jesuit priest who had been loyal to Father Gabriel, but was alarmed by the prospects of seeing all their labors destroyed.

Many of the natives joined the fight while others fled. But Irons/Father Gabriel saw the futility of these choices and instead placed himself in God's care, returned to the mission and trusted in a divine intervention, or rather, a pacifist response... or rather, "Love your enemies." As it turns out, all choices are futile.

Here are some great lines from the film:

DeNiro (Rodrigo Mendoza) insists the only way to survive is to take up arms. Gabriel answers, "If might is right, 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."

In another section when the verdict has been cast, Altamirano, Gabriel's superior states, "Tell them they must leave the missions. They must submit to the will of God." Gabriel replies, "They say it was the will of God that they came out of the jungle and built the mission. They don't understand why God has changed his mind."

So the pointed question: what are our options in today's culture wars? Fight? Flight? Faith and love? Active resistance? Try to change things from the inside?

Within the context of the film, all choices proved futile. In the context of our lives, there are choices we can make... foremost being to follow our conscience. Preceding that we would be wise to learn how to dialogue with others different from ourselves and inform our hearts so that we have the appropriate humility, living "wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

Both the film and the soundtrack are here recommended.


Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

Fantastic post Ed!
I'll try to answer to your question by avoiding it: maybe the most important thing after all is not the sense of despair that results from the inevitability of their doomed destinies, but the message that it sends to whoever comes in contact with the happening. What I mean is, the game has no internal solution, but the lack of solution is exactly what makes the argument so poignant and effective.

ENNYMAN said...

Your "game theory" approach pulls the story into its basic options. No win situations are not fun, but as much a part of life as the win-win opportunities. We wrestle to achieve the latter, but must know how to deal with the first as well.
Thanks for the post.