What’s fascinating is that the poster makes it seem as though the entire film is Jeremy Irons vs. De Niro, whereas that part of the film is exceedingly short. Also, the “bringing civilization” line is pretty indicative of the film’s politics.
Returning to the history on film series after a long interlude, we come across one of those odd films that has some idiosyncratic significance for me. Because the college I attended would show this mostly-forgotten message film almost once a year, I managed to catch it twice on the big screen three decades after the film debuted.
Viewed on an expansive screen, the film conveys its visual power most effectively. While poorly constructed, tonally and thematically clunky, and neglectful of most of its excellent cast, the film was essentially built around astonishing wide shots of Colombia standing in for modern Paraguay. Thus its setting makes it comparable to slightly older films like Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, all of which take place against the backdrop of Spanish colonialism.
If we consider those films as a trio for a moment, we can see that each one builds its conflict from a stark dichotomy––standard practice in the movies.
For Aguirre, it’s Man (gendered intentionally) against Nature, depicted as shadowy, unknowable, uncaring, untameable. Aguirre could therefore be called a Nightmare of Colonialism akin to Heart of Darkness: even the civilized Man is corrupted by prolonged exposure to the indifferent “void” of the forest.
Fitzcarraldo dramatizes the tension between a more advanced and self-consciously “progressive” colonialism attempting to bring Culture to Nature. Here the agent of high ambition is not an armed conquistador and his band of marauders but an ambitious opera fanatic attempting to build a palatial opera house in the rainforest. The land is controlled and parcelled rationally by capitalists, and the upstart is distinguished from them only to the extent that he actually believes the myth of civilization’s omnipotence. He is both tragic and in some ways comical, an unbalanced would-be oracle to the shadow world who fights against indifference––though this time it’s human and rational coldness rather as well as Nature.
The Mission does not have a single simple conflict around which to build the story. Herzog’s protagonists follow clear, if outrageous, goals to grandiose and self-destructive extremes. Meanwhile Joffé’s film navigates around a few central conflicts arguable pivoting around one epicentre. To summarize the handful of plots:
- A papal representative travels to South America to oversee the implementation of the Treaty of Madrid, which hands much of modern-day Brazil over to the Portuguese. The lands to be transferred include territories held by Jesuit missions that make both converts and profit for the Spanish. The papal representative arrives to investigate whether these missions are to retain the protection of the Catholic Church in light of the anti-Jesuit attacks perpetrated by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in Europe. Meanwhile, a Jesuit missionary, Father Gabriel––played by Jeremy Irons––attempts to persuade the representative to preserve the missions against the wishes of merchants and cartoonish royal flunkies.
- Captain Mendoza (Robert De Niro) leaves a life of slave trading to become Father Gabriel’s acolyte. He struggles between the path that Gabriel recommends––the path of pacifism and “love”––and what the film portrays as the remnants of his own violent past, though it might actually just be support for armed resistance against the colonizers.
- The Guaraní themselves struggle to save their own lives and sovereignty against the soldiers who come to evict them from the mission and (it’s implied) enslave them.
The Mission creates its themes around three binaries: Church v. State, Violence v. Love/Faith, and Colonizer v. Colonized. To some extent it is also a criticism of slavery and, indirectly, the capitalist system then being constructed around conscript labour in the Spanish and especially Portuguese colonies. What it does, though, is attach each major character or group of characters around a certain taking point and never leads them anywhere revelatory or even intriguing. Jeremy irons’ Gabriel is “Love,” and will voice the talking points associated with that idea.
In fact, Irons disappears from the film for long stretches and seems only to show up when the screenwriters need to insert a speech about the value of human life or to lecture De Niro about the importance of passive instead of armed resistance. He is Good Priest, and it stops there. Every character suffers a similar fate, and the large cast of Colombian native people are essentially reduced to a role slightly larger than that of sidekicks or even Father Gabriel’s trophies that he can show off to the Europeans who are (gasp) stunned that the people they want to enslave can sing hymns and make musical instruments.
(Historical Aside: While the film depicts these missions as havens in the midst of a genocidal norm since they protect the local Guaraní people from slave raiders, they remain points where indigenous culture is erased and native bodies are put to work for foreign interests. The Guaraní on the missions are depicted in the film, however, as liberated by conversion and submission to beneficent Jesuit rule. Additionally, the film distorts the facts by showing white Spanish people fighting with and even leading the Guaraní resistance, which did not happen. Films distorting history happens all the time and it is not necessarily bad, but in this case it reduces the role of the people the film is ostensibly about and just serves to allow the writers to insert more shallow babble about passive v. violent resistance.)
De Niro starts out as a bandeirante or slave raider who goes into the rainforest to kidnap native people for plantation labour. He goes through some mostly extraneous plot business at the beginning with his partner having an affair with his brother and so on and so on. Once rendered an outcast, he throws himself at Gabriel’s mercy and does mostly nothing until the film becomes a poorly choreographed action movie for its last fifth. I sense that the filmmakers wanted at least one white person to be converted in this film, both religiously and ideologically.
Mendoza as played by De Niro converts readily from a slave trader to a holy paladin defending the native people from encroachment. He converts to Catholicism and to the “good” side, whereas none of the other white cast members do so––Gabriel being the angelic exception who as far as we know has always loved the Guaraní. This in turn serves to suggest to the audience the idea that people can change, even if there will always be balding bureaucrats and professional racists and remorseful churchmen just doing their jobs in the world. Whiteness is therefore preserved from any direct criticism; it’s remarkably easy to stop hating people, after all!
All of this character business and political intrigue and tearful remorse needed another hour or so to really develop. As it is, characters practically vanish into the background as buzzwords and pithy liberal chit-chat occupy the real starring roles. It’s history as message, and what’s worse a message that is confused rather than thoughtful or even ambiguous. By the end of the film, the music and staging make you feel almost like there’s going to be a triumphant happy ending. And though the film avoids becoming another Disney’s Pocahontas and leaves the tragedy in place, there’s no indication of what that tragedy is supposed to mean except that life goes on. It’s “uplifting” film at its most frazzled and dishonest, and whatever distortions it makes to history only serve to muddle it further.