In 1986 one of the great Hollywood films was released. So good that it would even make its way on to the Vatican’s film list. A star studded film with the likes of Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson giving life to some very complex and well written characters. The film was nominated for and won multiple Oscars and Baftas. Including the Oscar for best Cinematography and the bafta for one of the most iconic film scores in the history of cinema coming from Ennio Morricone. This film is, of course, The Mission. Set in the jungle of South America in the 1740s, the film explores the relationship between the Church, the State and the individuals who make them up but ultimately it really explores our mission to love.
The films story is focused on the life of a Jesuit priest called Father Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons), who after one of his priests was martyred, decides to go out and risk his life by reaching out to the same native community that killed him in South America. He helps to teach them and educate them and build up their community and society. Eventually he starts to teach them of his faith and invites those who come to believe to help construct a church in the mission that they have made.
Simultaneously, we see that Fr. Gabriel is not the only one interacting with the natives. Captain Rodrigo Mendoza (played by Robert De Niro) is capturing the natives and selling them to the other Spanish and Portuguese settlers as slaves. He is therefore in conflict with Fr. Gabriel who is trying to help and care for the natives and help them develop their own culture and community. The story takes a dramatic change when Captain Rodrigo, impassioned by the news that the women he loves has fallen instead for his brother, kills him. Crippled by guilt and sorrow, Captain Rodrigo has no where to go but Fr. Gabriel, asked by his superior, counsels him.
Fr Gabriel encourages Captain Mendoza to repent and to accept a penance to show that he is contrite. Captain Mendoza is reluctant as he believes there is no penance that could be appropriate for the great evil that he has committed and challenges Fr Gabriel to help him no matter how challenging it may be. What follows is an incredible piece of cinema giving a very clear and visual representation of the internal struggle encountered by man as he pursues sanctity. Captain Mendoza has set himself the task of carrying all his weapons and armour up to the mission which lies through the jungle and up a waterfall. As he struggles along, he falls multiple times and the other priest of the mission look on at him in pity as Mendoza starts again after sliding down the side of the jungle down to the bottom of the valley. This is of course often how the life of a Christian feels. It can be a real struggle and often it feels like when we slip up we have fallen down to the bottom again. Dragged down by our past sins and ineptitude. By the weight of all the things of the world that we hold attachments to. In this scene there are some very interesting lines that really help give us the proper perspective on what is really going on.
Just before Mendoza falls for the first time Fr. John asks Fr. Gabriel. “How long must he carry that thing?” to which Gabriel responds, “God knows Fr John.” While this may seem like a throw away comment at first. In reality, Fr. Gabriel is showing us that something here is happening which lies beyond the normal realm of events. Fr. Gabriel who is in in charge formally of Mendoza’s penance and therefore could tell him to stop whenever. Is saying that he cannot discharge Mendoza from his act of penance. He must continue until God, with the cooperation of Mendoza, is able to enact interior change within him and therefore only God knows when this will end. We see this again in the dialogue that occurs between Fr. John and Fr. Gabriel at the bottom of the waterfall.
Fr John - “He’s done this penance long enough, and, well, the other brothers think the same.”
Fr Gabriel – “But he doesn’t think so John. Until he does neither do I. We are not the members of a democracy father; we are the members of an order.”
Here Fr Gabriel being petitioned by the other fathers to stop Mendoza doing his penance explains that he cannot do this until it enacts the necessary internal spiritual change in Mendoza; that is the very reason for Mendoza taking it up in the first place. Fr Gabriel sees that this external struggle is a means by which Mendoza is able to battle the internal struggles he is facing in the course of his conversion. He calls Fr. John to be obedient to him, reminding him that they are members of an order and not a democracy and so must follow the guidance of Fr. Gabriel. This scene shows the importance of obedience and faith in ones superiors when they have been rightly given a position of authority. In being obedient here, Fr John would then later see the good that was brought fourth from it and further understand why Fr Gabriel would not give up. We also see later that Fr. Gabriel is called to follow in obedience to his superiors and this makes clear to us that Fr. Gabriel asks nothing of others that he would not do himself a true hallmark of love.
The scene ends with Mendoza after he has climbed to the top of the waterfall where he finds the other Fathers and natives waiting. Of course, Fr. Mendoza who has been capturing the natives for years is no friend to them and before Fr John realizes, a native has stolen his knife and runs over to Mendoza. Everyone waits, frozen, expecting the native to kill Mendoza in revenge.
After a tense few moments we finally see the man cut the ropes off the back of Mendoza releasing all the armour and weapons that Mendoza has been carrying. They are then thrown into the river and fall off the waterfall. Mendoza begins to weep while everyone watches on. The beautiful music of Ennio Morricone begins to play. Fr Gabriel comes to embrace Mendoza who we see is weeping with joy. Here, finally, we see that Mendoza has reached the destination which Fr Gabriel has been helping him to come to. He has found the peace and forgiveness that he was searching for. As the weapons and armour of his old life fall away we see him now embracing those who he once rebuked. He has found a new life and sees the goodness in it that he once blindly destroyed. There is hope and there is sorrow. Hope of the life and love that he can now live for. Sorrow for the life he has so wasted before and the great harm that he has brought to others. Now his mission to love begins.
As the story continues, we see that Mendoza is accepted into the Jesuit order. The mission faces difficulties with the local governments of Spain and Portugal who wish to enslave the locals and take their land. A cardinal is sent by the pope to settle the matter and to try and help placate the Spanish and Portuguese who have been suppressing the Jesuits in Europe. In order to help the Jesuits the cardinal is asked to close the missions so that the Portuguese and Spanish will allow the Jesuit order to continue in Europe. This culminates in the Portuguese stating they will take the missions by force and the cardinal asking the Jesuits to close their missions. Sadly we don’t have time to explore this interesting aspect of the film. We will hopefully do this in a future post. Here I wish to focus instead on some of the final scenes of the film.
The dramatic ending of the film comes as the Portuguese invade the mission and some of the Jesuits decide to fight back with the locals. Mendoza of course has his history with weapons and wishes to fight with the locals but Fr Gabriel wishes to stand for something else. In one of the best dialogues of the whole film we see this play out in a confrontation between Fr Gabriel and Mendoza. Mendoza decides that force is the only way forward after being given his sword that was washed off the top of the waterfall when he first arrived. Symbolically this shows a turning back to the way of life that he knew before he converted and joined the mission. In the ensuing discussion we see that Fr. Gabriel sees this and doesn’t agree with him that this is the path they should follow.
Mendoza (M) – “Father I have come to ask you to bless me.”
Fr Gabriel (G) – “No”
G – “If you’re right, you will have gods blessing. If you’re wrong my blessing won’t mean anything. If might is right then love has no place in the world. It may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that Rodrigo. I can’t bless you.”
Mendoza then embraces Fr. Gabriel.
G- Rodrigo (Fr Gabriel gives him his crucifix)
This short scene which carries such weight through the incredibly acting of Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro really captures the philosophy which under pins the ending of the film. When Fr Gabriel says that Mendoza doesn’t need his blessing. He is not making a flippant comment but instead trying to make a larger point about the nature of reality. He is stating that ultimately for Fr Gabriel the world must be ruled by love. That if we do not live for love then what in the world is left that is any good. Fr Gabriel decides to take the peaceful option not because he is a coward. Since he knows he will almost certainly be killed. But instead because he knows that by doing so he gives a powerful witness in the name of love. Love ultimately is grounded in sacrifice for the sake of another. The crucifix that Fr Gabriel gives to Mendoza is the same one we see at the beginning of the film when Fr Gabriel picks it up off the memorial of the original martyr of the film and for shadows the sacrifice that is to come.
This mirrors a similar discussion we see in the film Karol. In that film, which explores the life of Karol Wojtyla before he became pope John Paul II, we see Karol speak of the need to oppose evil with love and sacrifice as otherwise “evil will return but under another name.” Ultimately love and sacrifice are the only way to make lasting change. While at times force may be a legitimate and necessary thing. We must also not be afraid to recognize the opportunities that we are given for total sacrifice in the name of love. Making sacrifices in our lives for the sake of love is the very means by which we give powerful witness to those transcendental truths which are the foundation of the mysteries of our faith and ultimately our very being.
After a valiant fight with the Portuguese Captain Mendoza is shot and as he lies dying on the ground he looks up towards Fr Gabriel processing with our Lord present in the Eucharist. While the mission burns around him he stands in front of the locals who walk with him towards the soldiers firing on at them. In those final moments Mendoza sees Christ acting through Fr Gabriel. As he walks we can see the fear in his eyes and yet the incredible resilience as well. He walks forward so boldly and confidently because he has surrendered himself to Christ. As Fr Gabriel walks forward with Christ he both shows Christ in the eucharist and also in the power of the eucharist in giving life and faith to Fr Gabriel when he most needs it. He has stayed with the locals despite everything. He has remained obedient to his superior in not fighting the soldiers and also in loving those around him. As Mendoza dies he is offered this final grace through Fr Gabriel’s actions that will sustain him in hope and help him to finally persevere in faith.
The incredible music of Ennio Morricone plays out as Fr Gabriel is shot and dies and then Mendoza finally passes away as well. We see as Mendoza looks up before dying. He finally understands those words of Fr Gabriel that we heard earlier. Despite the different paths that they took ultimately they both ended up dying but Mendoza sees that in that sacrifice Fr Gabriel lived only for love. He gave everything for the faith that others might come to know the love and mercy of God that he himself has received. He offered it to others and all the demands that it made not because he wished to force others to his way of being but because he loved them and that he knows that he himself was first loved before he could love others. Those who stake their lives on power and violence in those final moments do not know the goodness of God’s love for they are not willing to sacrifice themselves for it. Mendoza sees that Fr Gabriel was willing to give everything to God for the sake of Love which finds it’s truest meaning in God. Mendoza departs finally finding that peace and hope that he had been searching for throughout the film. Now he knows the love of God and desires it too with Gabriel and not only Mendoza but the other Natives as well. For after Fr Gabriel dies, one of them picks up the monstrance and caries our Lord on high.
I think the ending of this film while sad in many respects is also one of hope. It shows the true message of the Cross. That in darkness and destruction only love can light the way. The silent whisper of God’s voice that has been speaking throughout the film now calls out and cuts right through all the destruction and violence. There is a God who loves you and he sacrificed himself for you because he wishes for you to know the goodness of love too.
I find this final scene so beautiful for many reasons but ultimately for me the main reason is because in it I believe it portrays the great truths of the Catholic faith. That God loves us and died for us. That the eucharist really is Christ present to us on earth and that if we surrender to God, he will help bring us to everlasting life. The Mission is a great film for its music, its acting, its cinematography, its plot and most importantly because it speaks something of the great mysteries of our lives as Brothers and Sisters in Christ.