The Mission (1986) - Updated film review

This is my second review of the 1986 film "The Mission". It is much more extensive than my original review, which is also posted here on my blog.


October 31st, 1986 

2 hours

18th century Spanish Jesuits in Paraguay, South America, try to protect a remote South American Indian tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal. The Spanish and Portuguese both captured Indians and forced them into slavery.

Robert De Niro as Br. Mendoza
Jeremy Irons as Fr. Gabriel
Ray McAnally as Altamirano
Aidan Quinn as Felipe
Liam Neeson as Br. Fielding
Ronald Pickup as Señor Hontar
Chuck Low as Señor Cabeza

The Mission was written by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) and directed by Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, There Be Dragons).  

The Jesuits who first went out to the remote Indian tribe met martyrdom. Fr. Gabriel's character sent a priest who was killed by the tribe so he felt obligated to go reach them with the Gospel.

Fr. Gabriel made the arduous journey up the falls. Once he was in the jungle,  he began playing the flute. The Guarani tribe was amazed and gradually accepted him. He established a mission, San Carlos, and many of the tribe accepted Christ and thus became Christians by God's grace! To see this violent tribe looking with awe at Fr. Gabriel's pictures of the Blessed Mother with baby Jesus and some of the saints were in profound contrast with their former way of life. Fr. Gabriel has a run-in with Captain Mendoza who captured and killed some of the tribe.

Back in town, Mendoza finds out the woman he loves is in love with his brother Felipe. After simmering in anger for the day and thinking things over, Mendoza decides to have a duel with his brother. Felipe was no match for him and is quickly killed.

Six months later Fr. Gabriel talks with Mendoza who is punishing himself for his brother's death by not eating. Mendoza loved his brother. He feels there is no redemption for his sin against Felipe. Fr. Gabriel convinces him to try to do penance. Mendoza lugs a very heavy bundle of armor and swords (symbolic of his old life as a mercenary and slave trader) with him as Fr. Gabriel and he and other priests travel to the Gurani tribe above the waterfalls. Mendoza has an extremely arduous and taxing journey moving slowly up the falls.

When their party gets to the top of the falls they are met by Guarani tribesmen. Covered in mud and exhausted

Mendoza sits there. Suddenly an Indian confronts him, and after a tense standoff where he holds a sharp knife to Mendoza's throat, he cuts the rope and the heavy bundle falls into the river. Mendoza sobs and Fr. Gabriel comes over and comforts him. The heavy bundle being which was cut represented his guilt and self-hate over killing his brother.

Back at the tribal camp, Mendoza helps build the new church being erected. He also becomes a novice in the Jesuits.

In town, we see that a high official of the Roman Catholic Church, His Eminence Cardinal Altamirano has been dispatched by Rome to settle the matter of who would control the territory. The  Jesuit missions were originally built on Spanish lands, where slavery is illegal. But since a certain treaty was passed, the land has now been ceded to the Portuguese, where slavery is legal. The missions are the last refuge for the Guarani tribe, from the Portuguese slave traders. The Portuguese monarch wishes to expand his empire, and the Spanish monarch wishes to also prosper in the New World. Altamirano decides to visit the Jesuit missions before he decides the matter of who gets the land. The Portuguese put pressure on Cardinal Altamirano to judge in their favor. The Portuguese king listens to his trusted advisor who believes the Church is too powerful.

Cardinal Altamirano travels to the San Carlos mission and is amazed by the hospitality and close-knit Christian community that the Guarani have built. The Guarani sing Sancta Maria. In spite of what he saw, the Cardinal decides, tragically, that the Guarani must leave the missions and be at the mercy of the Portuguese. The king of the Guarani says they will not leave, they will fight. He says they were wrong to ever have trusted the Jesuits. Cardinal Altamirano tells Fr. Gabriel that he had already decided to give Portugal the mission territories before he came to San Carlos. His reasoning is that if the Church resists the Portuguese, the Jesuits will be kicked out of Portugal, and their order could then be removed from other European countries in a domino effect. So the missions were sacrificed.

Fr. Gabriel decides to stay at San Carlos, and remain with the tribe no matter what happens. Mendoza decides he will help the Guarani fight to live, two of the other priests will join him. The Guarani were wondering if God had abandoned him. Mendoza was showing them that he would fight as a priest to show them God's, sacrificial love. Fr. Gabriel has a tense argument with Mendoza and tells him that what he's about to do is deeply wrong and that fundamentally God is love.

The Portuguese military is making their way to San Carlos, with heavily armed men, cannons, and enslaved Guarani who are going to fight against their own people. Mendoza and a few men sneak into the Portuguese camp and steal kegs of gunpowder, rifles, and pistols. Mendoza is making homemade cannons to use against the Portuguese when they enter the San Carlos mission.

Mendoza and Fr. Gabriel meet for a final time, the Portuguese canoes were spotted approaching San Carlos. Fr. Gabriel poignantly says to Mendoza, "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." They embrace, and Fr. Gabriel gives Mendoza his cross to wear. Mendoza and the tribesmen make some kills, but the Portuguese are too powerful and it's asymmetric warfare. As the fighting goes on, Fr. Gabriel says mass with the women and children outside the front of the church where he has a makeshift altar set up.

The Portuguese troops set the church and village on fire, and fire muskets and cannons at the helpless women and children as Fr. Gabriel holds the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament. It was really hard to watch this part of the movie. The Portuguese military was absolutely heartless and brutal.

Mendoza tries to explode keys of gunpowder on the approaching soldiers, but the musket doesn't fire. He sees a young child laying injured, and he has the choice to save the child and let him escape with his tribesmen or else to explode the trap. He chooses life and saves the child. Seconds later, the Portuguese soldiers fire on Mendoza, striking him multiple dies, he collapses to the ground. He's still alive though, and he watches as the soldiers kill a great number of women and children as Fr. Gabriel leads them holding the monstrance. Mendoza sees his old friend Fr. Gabriel. bravely carrying the monstrance as he walks forward, suddenly multiple Portuguese soldiers fire on Fr. Gabriel killing him instantly. That was the final thing Mendoza saw, he closes his eyes and dies. We see a Guarani man pick up the monstrance and walk forward with it. At this point, I lost it and was sobbing like a baby.

Cardinal Altamirano, Señor Hontar, and Señor Cabeza (who ordered the slaughter of the Guarani) were discussing the next day what happened. The Cardinal questions Cabeza asking if such genocide was necessary and he says it was. Then Hontar says, "We must work in the world. The world is thus." And the Cardinal, with tears in his eyes, replies "No Señor Hontar, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it."

We see a group of survivors, young children, get in a canoe and make their way up the river, thus returning to the jungle. One girl brings a violin she found floating in the river. Their only remains of contact with the so-called civilized world. Cardinal Altamirano says, dictating a letter to the Pope, "So Your Holiness, now your priests are dead. And I am left alive. But, in truth, it is I who am dead. And they, who live. For as always Your Holiness, the spirit of the dead will survive, in the memory of the living." 

The last thing message to us is a quote from Scripture, John 1:5 - "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."

This film showed, in my view, in a very visceral and moving way that what matters is our relationship with Christ. And if need be, we should be willing to become martyrs as Mendoza, Fr. Gabriel, the other priests, and the Guarani did. For us, death is not the end, but rather the beginning of an eternity with our Lord.

In the end, Mendoza got the redemption he was seeking, Fr. Gabriel sacrificially laid down his life for his brothers and sisters in Christ. And the Guarani died as true martyrs. Also, we saw a cautionary tale of when the Church gets too involved in worldly political affairs.

I can say, without a hint of doubt, that this film is easily in my top 5 of my favorite films of all time. It's not easy to watch, but it's worth it. This film was both profound and disturbing. 

A closing thought of mine expressed in a quote:

“…Often, Christians of the present day discuss the “problem of evil.” Why does a good, loving, and all-powerful God allow evil in the world? Perhaps this question itself is misguided or based on a false premise. Not only does it presume humanity is the innocent victim of evil, but also that evil is an external force from which, it is imagined, God is failing to protect us. The reality is precisely the reverse—evil enters creation as a result of humanity’s collusion with evil spiritual forces. Humanity is the vehicle through which evil comes into the world, and it is most often directly inflicted by humans upon one another rather than by impersonal forces of nature. God’s merciful and gracious action is why this evil does not consume the creation entirely.

Nevertheless, God does allow the consequences of sin and corruption to at least partially play out in His creation. What is often labeled as God’s judgment, wrath, or punishment is really His allowing the perpetrators of iniquity to experience the full consequences of their sin. As always, this judgment is not punitive, though we may experience it as the punishment or the price of sin. Rather, to truly restore justice and order requires either repentance of the sin and evil that have disrupted the good order of creation or the removal of the unrepentant sinner.”—Fr. Stephen De Young, God is a Man of War: The Problem of Violence in the Old Testament

The cinematography of this film was stunning! Excellent directing by Roland Joffé! The ensemble cast of actors was brilliant.

Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro did some of their best work. Even the people playing the Guarani were good and believable.

I've never seen a film score so beautifully and richly complement the action and mood of a film as I did with Morricone's music for The Mission. It evokes a range of emotions and also helps pace the film.

Here is my favorite musical piece from Ennio Morricone's magnificent film score: The Mission - Main Theme.

The Mission won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography - Chris Menges. It also won several BAFTA awards. For a complete list of awards click here.

Here is the Catholic Film Podcast discussion of the film presented by Catholic Culture.


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