Jeremy Irons plays a Spanish Jesuit who goes into the South American wilderness to build a mission in the hope of converting the Indians of the region. Robert DeNiro plays a slave hunter who is converted and joins Irons in his mission. When Spain sells the colony to Portugal, they are forced to defend all they have built against the Portuguese aggressors.
The Mission is a 1986 British drama film about the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in 18th century South America. Written by Robert Bolt and directed by Roland Joffé, the film stars Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, and Liam Neeson.
It won the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. In April 2007, it was elected number one on the Church Times’ Top 50 Religious Films list. Furthermore, it is one of fifteen films listed in the category “Religion” on the Vatican film list. The music, scored by Italian composer Ennio Morricone, ranked 1st on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Classic 100 Music in the Movies.
About the Story
The film is set in the 1740s and involves Spanish Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) who enters the northeastern Argentina and western Paraguayan jungle to build a mission station and convert a Guaraní community to Christianity. The Guaraní community is not initially receptive to Christianity or outsiders in general, shown by the opening scene where they tie a priest to a wooden cross and send him over the Iguazu Falls, a large waterfall they live above. Father Gabriel travels to the falls, climbs to the top, and plays his oboe. The Guaraní warriors, captivated by the music, allow him to live.
Mercenary and slaver Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) makes his living kidnapping natives such as the Guarani community and selling them to nearby plantations, including the plantation of the Spanish Governor Don Cabeza (Chuck Low). After returning from another kidnapping trip Mendoza is told by his assumed fiancée, Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi), that she loves his younger half-brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn). Mendoza later finds them in bed together and in a fit of rage kills Felipe in a duel.
Although he is acquitted of the killing by Cabeza, Mendoza spirals into depression and seeks absolution for his actions. Father Gabriel visits and challenges Mendoza to undertake a suitable penance. Mendoza accompanies the Jesuits on their return to the Guaraní village, scaling a cliff while dragging a heavy bundle containing his armour and sword. Upon reaching the outskirts of the natives’ territory, there are a few tense moments when the natives recognise him, but after seeing him in his humbled state, they cut away his heavy bundle and forgive him.
Father Gabriel’s mission is depicted as a place of sanctuary and education for the Guaraní. Moved by the Guaraní’s acceptance, Mendoza wishes to help at the mission and Father Gabriel gives him a Bible. In time, Mendoza takes vows and becomes a Jesuit under Father Gabriel and his colleague Father Fielding (Liam Neeson).
The Jesuit missions were safe because they were protected under Spanish law. The Treaty of Madrid (1750) reapportioned South American land the Jesuit missions were located on, transferring the area to the Portuguese who allowed slavery. The Portuguese colonials seek to enslave the natives, and as the independent Jesuit missions might impede this, Papal emissary Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), a former Jesuit priest himself, is sent from the Vatican to survey the missions and decide which, if any, should be allowed to remain.
Under pressure from both Cabeza and Portuguese Governor Don Hontar (Ronald Pickup), Cardinal Altamirano is forced to choose between two evils. If he rules in favour of the colonists, the indigenous peoples will become enslaved; if he rules in favour of the missions, the entire Jesuit Order may be condemned by the Portuguese and the European Catholic Church could fracture. Altamirano visits the missions and is amazed at their industry and success, both in converting the Indians and, in some cases, economically.
At Father Gabriel’s mission of San Carlos he tries to explain the reasons behind closing the mission and instructs the Guaraní that they must leave because it is God’s will. The Guaraní question the validity of his claim, and argue God’s will was to settle and develop the mission. Father Gabriel and Mendoza, under threat of excommunication, state their intention to defend the mission alongside the Guaraní if the plantation owners and colonists attack.
They are, however, divided on how to do this, and they debate how to respond to the impending military attack. Father Gabriel believes that violence is a direct crime against God. Mendoza, however, decides to break his vows to militarily defend the Mission. Against Father Gabriel’s wishes, he teaches the natives the European art of war and once more takes up his sword.
The Mission (1986)
Directed by: Roland Joffé
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, Ronald Pickup, Liam Neeson, Bercelio Moya, Sigifredo Ismare, Daniel Berrigan
Screenplay by: Robert Bolt
Production Design by: Stuart Craig
Cinematography by: Chris Menges
Film Editing by: Jim Clark
Costume Design by: Enrico Sabbatini
Art Direction by: Norman Dorme, John King, George Richardson
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: October 31, 1986