This year has seen the release of a cascade of movies with religious themes. They have a Sergio Leone spread: they go from the Good (Heaven is For Real) to the Bad (Noah) to the Ugly (Left Behind). However, no one would call any of this year’s religious films devastating in their beauty and power. For that, you need to go back 28 years to a movie called The Mission.
The movie was the last one written by Robert Bolt, from his original story. Bolt was a former schoolteacher with his degree in history who began writing radio plays for the BBC on the side. He eventually left teaching and moved to writing for the theater. His major theatrical hit was “A Man For All Seasons,” for which he won a Tony award for best play when it was produced on Broadway. Later Bolt wrote the screenplay when it was adapted for the screen with Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw in the main roles and Fred Zimmerman in the director’s chair. Before that, though, Bolt began a three-film collaboration with David Lean. In 1962 he wrote the screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, followed by Dr. Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter.
In 1979, Bolt suffered a severe stroke that affected his speech and partially paralyzed him. He worked hard to recover, and returned to screenwriting with 1984’s The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. Two years later came The Mission. Bolt’s background in history made him the perfect person to tell the story of colonial South America in the 1750s. Robert Bolt passed away in 1995 at age 70.
Roland Joffe, who directed the movie, had started in television in his native England, including working a few episodes of “Coronation Street,” the BBC soap opera that’s been running for 54 years. In 1984 he directed his first film – The Killing Fields, for which he received an Oscar nomination. The Mission was his second feature film. The movie was produced by David Putnam, who’d also produced The Killing Fields as well as another movie that dealt with faith, Chariots of Fire.
The movie begins with a short preface as Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) dictates a letter to his secretary, to tell Pope Benedict XIV that the cardinal has completed his assignment. Altamirano isn’t pleased with the tone and begins again, starting with the first Jesuit who climbs a waterfall to reach natives living in the highlands above the falls, known as the Guarani people. When they see the crucifix the priest is wearing, they create a wooden cross, tie the Jesuit to it, and then send him down the river to be martyred when he plunges over the falls. That iconic image was used for the movie’s posters.
Rather than stay away from the escarpment, the head of the Jesuits in the area, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), climbs the falls himself. He can feel the natives in the forest around him, but rather than speaking to them, he sits on a rock and begins playing his oboe. The natives are drawn out of the forest by the music. Most of them are entranced, though some are angry at Gabriel. One takes the oboe and breaks it, but Gabriel knows he’s made a connection when another native picks up the two pieces of the oboe and tries to fix it.
Soon Gabriel learns why the Guarani are so hostile. A mercenary and slaver, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), has also penetrated the area above the falls to kidnap natives and sell them to plantations. Mendoza is an intense man who takes laughter as an affront. When not on raids to capture slaves, he lives in the Spanish capitol of the colony with his half-brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn), close to his fiancée Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi). Mendoza loves Felipe, but when he returns from a raid to discover Felipe and Carlotta in bed together, Mendoza kills Felipe in a duel. While he’s excused of blame by the authorities, his grief over his actions almost drives him to madness. The head of the hospital where Mendoza is confined sends for Father Gabriel, who presents the slaver with a suitable penance. He must climb the falls, dragging a bundle filled with all the armor he wore as a soldier, and then let the Guarani decide his fate. What follows is an incredible sequence that ends with the most powerful and realistic depiction of repentance and salvation ever put on film.
Mendoza embraces the life of a Jesuit, serving those he once enslaved. But when Cardinal Altamirano arrives, Gabriel and the Jesuits learn that the area where their missions are located is to be transferred from Spanish control, where slavery is outlawed, to the control of the Portuguese, where slavery is still allowed. Gabriel tries through a series of debates as well as a tour of the missions to convince the Cardinal to prevent the transfer, but while Altamirano is deeply moved by all he sees, he can’t change the decisions made across the ocean. Altamirano warns Gabriel that the Jesuit risks the suppression of the whole order, as the authorities in Catholic Europe have grown tired of their independence. Three choices of action remain, none of them good: 1) capitulation to the authorities, 2) non-violent resistance, and 3) war against the Spanish and Portuguese. It’s a question of conscience for each man to decide which path he’ll follow.
Much of the movie was filmed on location, and the film recruited indigenous people to portray the Guarani people. Rather than write lines for them, they were given the thrust of scenes and then allowed to speak whatever they wanted in their own language. The waterfall that is a central part of the movie is one of the most beautiful in the world: Iguazu Falls, on the present-day border between Brazil and Argentina.
The story of The Mission is roughly based on fact. In 1750, the Treaty of Madrid was signed by Spain and Portugal to end a border dispute between their colonies in South America that had led to armed conflict. As part of the treaty, a portion of Paraguay where the Jesuits had missions was transferred to Portuguese Brazil. The transfer meant that all of the natives who were living at the missions could now be enslaved. That action started what was called the Guarani War, with the indigenous people fighting against the soldiers of both Spain and Portugal from 1754 to 1756. The suppression of the Jesuits mentioned in the movie happened a little later, in the 1760s and lasted into the 1800s. During that time the Jesuits left Catholic Europe and its colonies and worked in other nations and mission fields.
Altamirano was a real person, though rather than being a Cardinal he was a Jesuit himself, sent by the general of the order to enforce the Madrid treaty. Father Gabriel is based on Paraguayan saint and Jesuit Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz. One of the consultants on the film was Fr. C.J. McNaspy, S.J., who wrote the book “The Lost Cities of Paraguay” that deals with the history of this period.
Music is an integral part of the movie, and the producers were fortunate to get Ennio Morricone to compose the score. It is one of the best ever written, from the beauty of “Gabriel’s Oboe,” to the native instruments blended into “Falls,” to the raw, discordant power of “Penance,” to the liturgical chanting in the “Main Theme.” It’s one of those scores that brings the images of the movie rushing back into your mind when you listen to the music.
The casting was excellent. Irons was respected for his work in “Brideshead Revisited” and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but it was still early in his career. It was four years after The Mission when he had his breakout role as Klaus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. De Niro had had a string of unsuccessful movies after 1980’s Raging Bull, including The King of Comedy, Brazil, and Once Upon A Time In America, which as released in such a truncated form that it lost its coherence. (It wasn’t until it was released years later in a 4 hour version that its brilliance was recognized.) With his work in The Mission along with The Untouchables the next year, De Niro’s career was back on track.
Ray McAnally was an Irish character actor who was revered for his stagework, though he had a run of successful movies in the late 1980s (Cal, White Mischief, and My Left Foot) and did the miniseries adaptation of John Le Carre’s “A Perfect Spy.” Sadly, he passed away in 1989 at age 63. Fielding, one of the Jesuits helping Father Gabriel, was played by another Irish actor just beginning his career – Liam Neeson. An interesting piece of casting in light of the theme of the movie is that of Sebastian, an elderly Jesuit. The role was played by Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who was a protester against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and nuclear arms in the 1980s. At the beginning of the credits it is noted that priests still fight for the rights of indigenous people, along with a verse from the first chapter of the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The Mission was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it took the grand prize, the Palm d’Or. At the Golden Globes, Morricone won for his score and Bolt for the screenplay. The movie was nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Score, and Director, but it ended up winning only one award, for Chris Menges’ cinematography. In 2007 it was selected as #1 on the list of top 50 religious movies by “The Church Times.” This is a movie that wrestles with powerful themes: redemption, obedience, the conflict of Christianity with temporal power – and the danger of merging those two.
At the time it was made, adding a final tag to a movie after the credits had just become popular. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with its famous tag, was released the same year as The Mission. The tag at the end of the credits in The Mission is only a few seconds long, without any dialogue, and it is devastating.
This year’s quantity does not equal the quality of The Mission. If you want to watch a powerful movie about Christianity, start here.