Reflections on “The Mission”

directed by Roland Joffé, written by Robert Bolt,

starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons

 

 

 

 

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

 

This is a dramatised (and significantly fictionalised) account of the Spanish / Portuguese push to drive the South American tribe of the Guarani from their homeland and Jesuit mission in the 1750s.

 

Author Robert Bolt uses this historically genuine event as the basis for a discussion of faith, the church, politics, redemption and the place of violence in fighting for what you believe in.

 

By means of two contrasting characters – Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) and mercenary slave trader Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), Bolt shows the strength of human compassion, dignity and determination, and how they can be held of no consequence in the face of human greed, political expediency and the interests of a large organisation.

 

 

Rodrigo Mendoza is a mercenary slave trader who clearly shows no compassion for his victims and is a man used to having his own way. He is a man for whom the lives and thoughts of others mean little. Until the day he kills his own brother while in a jealous rage when he discovers he has lost the woman he loves to him.

 

Filled with remorse (Bolt seems to specialise in showing the pain of his characters), and perhaps for the first time in his life reaching out for and needing the spiritual rather than the physical, Rodrigo takes sanctuary in the local church. There, Father Gabriel offers him a channel for his remorse in joining him at his mission among the Guarani, the very people he used to ensnare and then enslave.

 

Rather poetically, Rodrigo drags his armour behind him (representing the heavy weight and burden of his past life) as he accompanies Gabriel up mountains, across rivers and through jungle to the mission of Saint Carlos.

 

 

Once arrived, and again rather poetically, a member of the Guarani literally and symbolically cuts him free from the burden of his armour and his past, bestowing freedom and forgiveness on the mercenary, and enabling him to get on with the rest of his life.

 

Gabriel has helped the Guarani harness their potential and together they have created something of a heaven on earth, developing land, livestock and living accommodation. Rodrigo readily contributes to this new life and willingly becomes a member of the Jesuit order himself.

 

All is going ominously well, away from political and ecclesiastical interference.

 

However, pressure is being brought to bear on the catholic church (in charge of the Jesuits) as Spain and Portugal divide South American territories and Portugal wishes to exercise its commercial rights by entering and taking over the Jesuit missions which come under Papal protection.

 

Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) is dispatched to investigate as Gabriel and the other Jesuits argue and demonstrate the Guarani are “spiritual” and are therefore entitled to continued development and protection, while the Portuguese and Spanish argue they are “animal” and require the direction (and exploitation) of a trade nation such as their own.

 

 

Ultimately, the Guarani and the Jesuits become victims of their own success as well as pawns in an international game of political chess. Commercial gain wins over religious and human success and the Guarani are ordered to leave the missions, leading to military conflict and massacre.

 

There is so much to admire in Bolt’s literate and intelligent script and Joffé’s engaging and subtle direction, I fear I have done little more than recount the story – surely a testament to the clarity and quality of the script.

 

Although the two are never entirely united, the spiritual (Father Gabriel) and the physical (Rodrigo) work together to protect and defend what they have achieved with the Guarani, Gabriel exhausting all reasonable means to achieve a peaceful solution before Rodrigo sets out to defend them militarily. Of course, Gabriel cannot endorse Rodrigo’s intentions, but there is the implication (with the gift of his cross to Rodrigo) that Gabriel understands Rodrigo’s actions, given the desperate circumstances and the fact the church appears to have turned its back on its own to side with its moral adversaries, for reasons of its own …….

 

Bolt appears to be suggesting that while the spiritual is essential and offers guidance, the physical is also necessary if reasoned argument fails, and especially if your opponent is willing to use similar tactics against you.

 

Just as Victor Hugo was an advocate of the spiritual but was opposed to organised religion in the shape of the church, so it appears that Bolt suggests that much can be achieved through the love and compassion advocated in the Bible, but this can be lost in the mire of interests of the vast organisation the church has become.

 

 

As far as performance is concerned, both Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons acquit themselves with great honour and make you feel the pain, peace, remorse and anger they portray. However, special mention must go to Ray McAnally (Cardinal Altamirano) who manages to convey weariness, joy, steely determination and profound regret, as his character sums up the situation and expresses deep-felt guilt and remorse, as he comes to his inevitable decision and must live with the consequences.

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this page.

 

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

 

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Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. Please check for regular updates. These include various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", “The Prisoner” (1967 TV series), “Inherit the Wind” (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.