The death last week of the great composer Ennio Morricone was timely. His greatest work, the score for The Mission, addresses current controversies about missionary activity and indigenous peoples. The Mission is not about Spanish Franciscans in California, Alta and Baja, but Spanish Jesuits in Paraguay. The issues, though, are the same. And Morricone attempted to resolve them nobly with his music.
Whether The Mission is the greatest Catholic film ever made, or second to A Man for All Seasons, is a matter for debate. Both of them were written by the brilliant Robert Bolt, so the credit is due to the same man. But whether Morricone’s score is the best film score ever ought to be a matter of consensus. Not only is it a masterful composition, it is truly sacred music. Moreover, the score is one of the most important characters in the film itself. Director Roland Joffé makes the music central to the initial encounter of the Jesuits with the Guaraní aboriginal people, their battle for dignity and freedom aided by the Jesuits, and the promise of a future touched by grace.
Morricone composed more than 500 scores for radio, movies and television, an astonishing output over nearly 70 years. Awarded first with an honorary Oscar in 2007, he finally won for best score in 2016 for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. He considered not winning the Academy Award for The Mission in 1986 as “a theft.” It was grand larceny.
The “maestro” — the Italian refused to leave his birthplace of Rome and refused to learn English, despite his star status in Hollywood — was best known for scoring Clint Eastwood’s “spaghetti westerns” in the 1960s. His theme for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was his most famous and commercially successful composition. The music was popular across a range of tastes. His The Ecstasy of Gold from the same film opened all Metallica concerts for decades. From heavy-metal concerts to Gabriel’s Oboe performed at the Vatican, his music reached a range of audiences without compare.
The Mission remains his crowning achievement — a score characterized “as so moving that rather than complementing the film, it overwhelmed it.” That’s not quite true. Morricone’s score did not overwhelm the film but amplified it; indeed, it was a character in the film, even its narrator.
The brutality of the Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the Americas is not hidden in The Mission; it is the main point of conflict. The missionaries came across the seas in that system, with the colonial authorities’ patronage. How did they treat the indigenous peoples that they encountered and sought to evangelize?
The telling of that tale by those toppling statues of the St. Junípero Serra is that the missionaries were part of wicked systems and shared in the guilt of those who committed atrocities against the indigenous people. Of some missionaries that could surely be said. But the saintly missionaries — and The Mission tells their story — recognized the dignity of the indigenous peoples and sought to defend their rights against the abuses they faced. That is true of St. François de Laval in Quebec and St. Junípero in California.
The missionaries were part of the colonial expansion, which is how they arrived in the Americas in the first place. They moderated the abuses of the time, even if they did not conduct themselves as if they lived in the early 21st century.
The Church and her missionaries defended the essential humanity of the indigenous peoples, meaning that they had a right to hear the Gospel. Canonical legislation and theological reflection on the indigenous peoples forms a basis for both the corpus of international law and human-rights law.
Morricone managed to capture something of all that in his score. The Mission highlights the role of music in both cultural dialogue and evangelization. It is music that bridges the gap between the Jesuits and the Native peoples, as in the achingly beautiful Gabriel’s Oboe. It is music that shows their acceptance of the faith; On Earth as It Is in Heaven combines both European and Guaraní themes in a liturgical setting. It is music that accompanies the final defense of the mission against the colonial slave traders, a Eucharistic procession with the women and children singing together. And, finally, it is the music that endures when the mission is destroyed. The Guaraní children salvage the oboe from the destruction.
The main theme of The Mission, performed by major orchestras in major capitals the world over, is a combination of the post-Council of Trent sacred music tradition with the Native musical tradition of the Guaraní. It incorporates the Guaraní music into that tradition, opening their culture to new horizons.
In the sometimes-vexed conflict between evangelization and proselytism, between inculturation and imperialism, The Mission shows how the failures have been manifold. Morricone’s music is the character that gets it right.
The Mission was 34 years ago, and the spaghetti westerns another 20 years before that. Morricone kept active and, in his 80s, finally agreed to the decades-old request of his wife that he compose a Mass.
In 2015, his Mass for Pope Francis was performed for the first time at the Gesù, the principal Jesuit church in Rome. The Mass setting honored the first Jesuit pope on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the Jesuit order in 1814. (The suppression of the Society of Jesus in the 18th century is an important part of the historical setting of The Mission.)
Morricone conducted the debut himself. At 86, in the evening of his life, Morricone returned to the subject of the faith, the Jesuits and the Church.
“My wife asked me for years for a Mass, but I did not ever decide to do it,” Morricone told Vatican Radio. “The thing that strikes me most about this task is the fact that I wrote the music for the film The Mission, which is the story of the Jesuits in South America, which, after some years, in 1750, they were disbanded. In some way I have participated in their dissolution, and now I participate in the celebration of the 200th anniversary of their restoration.”
The Mass composition itself is restrained, almost austere, in parts, even during the Gloria. There are hints of the music from The Mission in the Alleluia, and then Morricone adds a Finale, which is not customary in Mass compositions, but the reason becomes evident. The Finale is a full-throated reprisal of The Mission theme, linking the restoration of the Jesuits to their heroic work in Latin America. It’s a story that needs to be told again.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.