The Church is the hands and feet of Christ on earth. Her mission is to preach the Gospel and do good works. The Church is also an institution in the real world, and at times her organizational work clashes with her spiritual goals.
The Mission, winner of the 1986 Cannes Film Festival's highest award, dramatizes one of these conflicts. The action is set in the 1750s in Latin America where the Jesuits were trying to convert the Indians. The story is narrated by a papal emissary (Ray McAnally) who has been forced to make some difficult decisions. He says his tale demonstrates “the everlasting mercy of God and the short-lived mercy of man.”
Director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) and screenwriter Robert Bolt (Lawrence of Arabia) begin the emissary's story with the martyrdom of the first Jesuit who tried to evangelize an Indian tribe who live above a majestic waterfall where few white men have been. The priest's superior, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), declares: “I sent him, I have to go up there myself.”
A gentle but intensely focused man, Father Gabriel succeeds in establishing a mission with that formerly hostile tribe, but he is soon followed by a slave trader, Capt. Mendoza (Robert De Niro), who kidnaps Indians for forced labor on European-run plantations.
Upon his return to the settlements, Mendoza finds that he and his brother, Felipe (Aidan Quinn), are in love with the same woman. They quarrel, and the slave trader kills his sibling in a duel.
Despite his evil conduct, Mendoza has a conscience. Guilt over his broth-er's death paralyzes him. He lives for six months in a cell in a Jesuit community residence. His former enemy, Father Gabriel, is asked to try and cure his despair.
“For me, there is no redemption,” cries Mendoza. “Do you have the courage to chose your penance?,” Father Gabriel replies. “Do you dare to see it fail,” Mendoza counters, accepting the Jesuit's spiritual challenge.
The ex-slave trader's penance is to drag behind him a heavy rope net filled with armor and weapons on the long trek up the steep hills to the Indian mission he once raided. The burden is cumbersome, and he's often in great pain. Father John (Liam Neeson), another Jesuit missionary, thinks the penance is arbitrary and cruel. But Father Gabriel realizes it will cause Mendoza to suffer enough for him to forgive himself.
The mission Indians witness the ex-slave trader's self-inflicted punishment, and true to their recent calling as Christians, they accept him as part of their community. As a result, Mendoza finds inner peace and decides to join the Jesuit order. This whole sequence is one of the most moving presentations of the power of Christian redemption ever filmed.
The papal emissary comments that the missionaries' “seeking to establish paradise on earth is offensive” to many. The Jesuits have established other missions below the falls that have been organized into plantations which compete with the settlers' holdings. As all the missions' profits are recycled back into the Indian communities, some of the Europeans believe the Jesuits'activities undermine the capitalist system.
Both Spain and Portugal claim large tracts of land in the area. The Spanish forbid slavery, and the Portuguese allow it. When the mission above the falls was established, it was recognized as Spanish territory so if outlaws like Mendoza were controlled, the Indians remained free. But a treaty has recently been negotiated in Europe which cedes this land to the Portuguese. The papal emissary has been sent to the hemisphere to decide what to do about the Jesuit community above the falls.
Joffe and Bolt depict the Vatican official's dilemma with sensitivity and intelligence. Although a man skilled in the exercise of temporal power, he too has a conscience.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers also have an ideological bias which weakens their otherwise powerful story. They want to establish parallels between the 18th-century Jesuits in Latin America and the activities of the Catholic left of our time. These comparisons seem forced and are historically questionable.
To this end, the Indians are so idealized that they seem to have no faults. And, in case we miss the point, radical activist Father Daniel Berrigan is cast as one of the Jesuits working with them.
Nevertheless, The Mission, on a personal level, is a deeply spiritual drama about penance and forgiveness. On the political plane, it depicts with a savage eye the Europeans exploitation of indigenous people in Latin America and shows how the Church found herself at times on both sides of the issue. It's a painful chapter of our history which we should never forget.
Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer is currently writing from Washington, D.C.
Next Week: Mervyn LeRoy's The Wizard Of Oz.