Film Review by Adrian Mather
The high Oscar potential of a historically based film is not usually a useful indicator of its accuracy – and often not even a true representation of its worth as an aesthetically pleasing viewing experience. In recent years we have witnessed the Academy swooning over such historically inaccurate debacles as Braveheart (1995), Elizabeth (1998) and Shakespeare in Love (1998), as well as shockingly poor viewing experiences such as Titanic (1997) and Gladiator (2000) (to name but a few). However, looking slightly further back into the early/mid 1980s there are a number of genuinely outstanding historically based movies to behold. Chariots of Fire (1981) wowed the Oscar panel with its portrayal of the 1924 Olympics, Amadeus (1984) gave a lavish account of Mozart, whilst Martin Scorsese’s 1980 bio-pic Raging Bull (1980) offered a critically praised narration of the life of prize boxer Jake la Motta. But one of the most impressive, and critically underrated, historical movies of the eighties is Roland Joffe’s tale of eighteenth-century Jesuits in South America, The Mission.
Although winning the 1986 Palme d’Or award for outstanding films at the Cannes Film Festival, the Academy chose to award the film with a best cinematography Oscar (despite earning six other nominations), and gave Best Picture and Best Director to Oliver Stone’s Platoon instead of Joffe. Even Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro failed to make any lasting impression on the critics, with a best actor Golden Globe the only reward for Iron’s magnificent portrayal of an emotionally and spiritually torn Jesuit missionary. The Washington Post hailed The Mission as a beautiful, but unwatchable piece of cinema that failed to live up to the potential that Joffe had displayed with his earlier debut The Killing Fields (1984). Other critics claimed that the tale was simply too self-righteous and pious to be taken seriously. But with user comments and reviews on movie databases proclaiming The Mission as “one of the greatest films ever”, it appears that the professional critics’ views are not shared by the majority of ordinary cinema-goers.
Taking the unusual step of focusing on the New World in its semi-cultivated state (rather than in initial exploration as in Ridley Scott’s 1992 movie 1492: Conquest of Paradise), The Mission manages to dazzle its audience with a combination of strong casting, and immaculate cinematography. There is also an underlying message of morality and humanity that leaves a distinct feeling of satisfaction at its conclusion – albeit with a moving, sorrowful tone to wrench at the heart strings. And, surprisingly, we are shown the Jesuit missionaries in the light that they intended themselves to be seen in, rather than the subversive, powerful and dangerous image that they were contemporarily given.
The story begins with a dictated letter from Cardinal to Pope – laying the basis for the continual narrative that drives the film on and brings the focus back to the key plot lines and characters. We are introduced to Father Gabriel (Irons) and immediately witness his desire to convert and spread Christianity to the native Indians – despite the fact that a previous attempt had resulted in the martyrdom of one of their Jesuit brothers. Gabriel earns the trust of the Guarani people through music (leading to Altamirano’s comment that, “if they were an orchestra, the Jesuits could have subdued a continent”) and religious teachings, converts them and begins work on a new Mission amongst them – St Carlos; a rainforest paradise for praise. Meanwhile, the slave catcher Captain Rodriguez Mendoza kills his brother in a duel and believes himself eternally damned…until he meets Gabriel who suggests coming to the St Carlos Mission as his penance. Whilst there, Mendoza converts and is ordained as Father Rodriguez – just as the papal jurisdiction arrives on the continent to settle the territorial claims of Spain and Portugal, and to decide whether the Jesuits are justified in their missionary claims that the Guarani are spiritual beings rather than savage animals. Cardinal Altamirano visits the great Mission of St Miguel, as well as Gabriel’s St Carlos Mission, but still decides that they must be abandoned – a political action already sanctioned to curb Jesuit influence and power in the Americas in order to preserve their status in Europe. The Indians and priests refuse, but only Gabriel will not fight since violence and might undermine his essential spiritual vows. The Mission is destroyed, the priests killed and, even to the regret of our narrator, territorial claims are resettled and the slave trade can flourish.
In this film we are offered a representation of an extensive network of missionaries and missions in South America, but we also see true spiritual worth, dignity and success in the attempts by Jesuit priests in converting native Indians to Christianity. It also presents a moving image of the paradise of the St Carlos mission. In addition, there are several important themes that the film touches upon; including the political implications of the slave trade, the political power of Spain and Portugal against the Jesuit fathers, and the problems faced by the church in reference to the increasing tensions against the missionaries. In Rodriguez’s conversion from mercenary slave hunter to Jesuit father, we are offered a classic fall-from-grace and spiritual redemption, and in Gabriel’s last stand in the St Carlos mission he is martyred on screen with the people he had tried to save. And despite the Hollywood-friendly fight for survival at the finale, with explosions, arrows and plenty of gunfire, the unconventional undertones and subject matter manage to distance The Mission suitably from other action packed adventures such as The Last of the Mohicans (1992).
However, there is an overwhelming, underlying sentiment of Jesuit championing that leaves a profound, if slightly over-simplified, impact on the audience. Irons is immortalised as Father Gabriel; a Moses, or even Jesus-like, figure who spreads the word of God to his people and can only watch in passiveness as their sanctuary is destroyed. When first released, religious leaders cited The Mission as an anti-religious film due to its apparent condemnation of weak ecclesiastical officials that sold out Jesuit missionaries and their converts to profit-minded Portuguese imperialists and slave traders. Yet in 1995 the Vatican film panel listed the movie alongside fifteen others with special, noteworthy religious significance. Despite the overwhelming pious nature of the movie, and its preaching undertones, there is no clear indication whether the message of The Mission is one of romanticism for the Jesuit cause, or a lament for the Guarani people who should have never been “Europeanised”. Therefore, Joffe does not create the same critically praised ambiance of The Killing Fields that he might have hoped for.
Obviously, any movie that uses the “based on true historical events” tagline before the opening scene is bound to use a fair amount of artistic license in its interpretation of history, and The Mission is no exception to the rule. The events surrounding the San Carlos mission and the struggle of Gabriel and Rodrigo are factual occurrences’. The 1750 Treaty of Madrid did cede South American land from Spain to Portugal, the Jesuits were forced out of their spiritual communities, and the mission of San Carlos did exist above the Iguassu falls on the Argentinian border, supporting the local Guarani Indians.
However, both Gabriel and Rodrigo are fictional characters and their struggle is factually incorrect since only the Guarani themselves fought against oppression in the resulting three-year warfare against the Portuguese. The Jesuit missionaries did not directly disobey the orders of Altamirano, and none stayed to fight with their converts (so that the Jesuit Order might be preserved in Portugal and Spain – ironic since the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal soon after, and were effectively suppressed by the Vatican). Even the character of Altaminaro is historically inaccurate. He was not a cardinal sent by the Pope, but an emissary sent be Ignazio Visconti (the newly elected Superior General of the Society of Jesus) to preserve the Jesuit Order in Europe in the face of attacks in Spain and Portugal. Whilst we see Altaminaro in the film as torn between his conscience and his duty to his religion, according to historical accounts he was intimidating and not at all conflicted by his appointed task. The figures of Don Cabeza and Senor Hontar could have been further explored as intriguing political bastions in the Sao Paulo area, but instead their oversimplification only gives the impression that they are “the bad guys” that the heroic Jesuit martyrs have to struggle against. The capitalistic mentality of Don Cabeza appears to be a sloppy mistake – especially as capitalism was in its early conception in the 1750s.
This is not to say that these oversights and historical liberties ruin the film, but they do leave the impression that there are many elements that could be explored further. The extensive network of Jesuit missions (or even the economic potential of the ‘reducciones’) is not fully represented; the European plight of the Jesuits is merely hinted at; and the Guarani themselves are shown as two dimensional characters that hold little or no intrigue for the audience (despite the fact that modern day Guarani people were actually portraying them on screen). However, at two hours long, it would simply make The Mission far more tedious and monotonous to include these elaborations.
Instead Joffe’s movie must be viewed as a wonderfully located and filmed, and beautifully acted piece of cinema with an unclear message. As an apology to the native South Americans for European expansion (thus echoing the mid 1980s mentality of film-makers and politicians), it does not provide a clear moral message. But as a tale of moral conflict, the clash between religion and preservation, forgiveness, exploitation and colonialism, racism and the muted triumph in non-violence and martyrdom, The Mission certainly succeeds in captivating its audience. It is only disappointing that Roland Joffe wasted the talents he showed with this and The Killing Fields by making the 1993 travesty Super Mario Brothers – the Vatican film council certainly wouldn’t have been split over the moral worth of that film.