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While every director hopes to open their career with one or two good feature films, few can say they hit the ground running quite like Roland Joffé. After spending a decade directing theater and episodes of British television, Joffé made the leap to the big screen in 1984 with The Killing Fields, a loose adaptation of New York Times photographer Dith Pran’s first-hand account of the Cambodian genocide. The Killing Fields was a critical and cultural smash; not only did the film receive a total of seven Academy Award nominations – including a Best Supporting Actor win for newcomer Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran – it also helped focus international attention on the Khmer Rouge regime and the plight of countless Cambodian refugees around the world.
When the time came for Joffé to shoot his second feature, one could argue he traveled halfway around the world just to stay in his own backyard. “I come from a generation that believed that ideas were unassailable,” Joffé told the Los Angeles Times in 1985 during pre-production on The Mission. “And in fact this is not at all true. They are incredibly vulnerable.” Like with The Killing Fields, The Mission is as much a film about indoctrination as it is about historical figures, how an entire population of people can have their values and beliefs snatched away by men with power and a political agenda. And with Martin Scorsese’s Silence – another film about Christianity and colonialism – now is the perfect time to dive back into Joffé’s ambitious period piece about the roles that Jesuits played in helping shape our modern world.
Set in South America in the 18th century, The Mission is a loosely historical film following two Jesuit priests in South America as they struggle to protect their local mission – home to the Guaraní, the region’s indigenous population – from the political forces mounting against them. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is the leader of the mission, a man of music and peace who manages to connect with the Guaraní after they crucify the previous Jesuit priest sent to their village. Rodrigo (Robert De Niro) is a former mercenary and slave-trader who joins the Jesuits after killing his brother in a duel over his wife – for Game of Thrones fans, this makes it the Jesuit version of taking the black. While each man dedicates himself wholly to the community, their backgrounds lead to inevitable clashes. Even as a priest, Rodrigo is ill-tempered and more than a little vain, and Gabriel takes it upon himself to teach his new ward both humility and patience. He comes closer than you would expect.
With the help of their youngest member – played by a young Liam Neeson, committing onscreen apostasy for what would only be first time in his career – Gabriel and Rodrigo work to protect their community from the changing political winds of Europe. While their mission had previously been located in Spanish territory, new treaties have ceded the land the mission was built on to the neighboring Portuguese soldiers. This creates tension between the Jesuits priests and the Spanish and Portuguese communities; human trafficking may be illegal in Spain – on paper, anyways – but it isn’t in Portugal, and the Portuguese army is not exactly shy about their plans for the Guaraní people. Gabriel’s last chance to resolve the situation without bloodshed is to convince Rome’s emissary Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) to intercede with the pope on their behalf. If the Catholic Church is unwilling to hold firm against Spain and Portugal, then the Guaraní will be forced to choose between retreating back into the jungle or fighting a losing battle against a superior force.
Much like he did with The Killing Fields, Joffé chose to shoot The Mission on location, imbuing the film with an incredible sense of otherness through his use of local scenery and actors. With all apologies to William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, The Mission may be one the wettest films ever committed to camera, steeped in the rivers and rainfall of its tropical climate. The film’s signature image is that of the Iguazu Falls, the largest waterfall system in the world and the barrier between the rural Guaraní and the Spanish and Portuguese settlements. The cliffs bring death to those who try to invade the Guaraní’s lands and redemption to those who dare scale its heights in the name of peace. The film thrills in the images of Gabriel’s first solo climb up the cliff walls; later, when Rodrigo is tasked with dragging his armor up the cliff as a form of penance, the camera lingers on ever loose rock and wet patch of mud. Joffé and his crew know the full power of the film’s setting and are all too happy to let the landscapes speak for themselves as much as possible.
At the heart of the film is the uneasy friendship between Gabriel and Rodrigo. While Robert De Niro might be the biggest name in the cast, his style as an actor makes him particularly ill-suited to taking on the nuances of a period performance. Plainly, De Niro has neither the tongue nor the polish needed to sell Rodrigo as an agent of the Spanish government. It isn’t until Rodrigo commits himself wholly to a path of violence that De Niro’s performance starts to find its footing; speaking less and fighting more, De Niro finds a common ground between Rodrigo and the undercurrent of anger so often present in his performances. De Niro, like Rodrigo, is best used here as a weapon, and when Rodrigo breaks his vows and kills his first man in defense of the Guaraní, De Niro shifts to a place of raw physicality much more keeping with his personal style.
Jeremy Irons, on the other hand, brings an inherent morality to his portrayal of Father Gabriel. Gabriel is a man who can, if he chooses, navigate the political waters around him, but prefers not to lose sight of his mission – pun intended – and the people he has dedicated himself to serving. As such, he seems to be the only person in the film genuinely surprised when the Catholic Church rules against him. Rather than pick up arms against the invading forces, however, Irons delivers the film’s signature speech, a treatise on pacifism as both a political weapon and as a means of maintaining his sanity in the world. “If you’re right, you’ll have God’s blessing,” he tells Rodrigo when the latter comes to ask for his blessing before the fighting. “If you’re wrong, my blessing won’t mean anything. If might is right, then love has no place in the world.”
The problem is that Cardinal Altamirano has not come to save the mission so much as to ensure a peaceful transition of power, encouraging Gabriel and his men to retreat with the Guaraní into the jungle as soon as possible. Despite claims to speak directly for God on Earth, the Catholic Church is in the business of trading human capital for political favor, promising not to interfere with the business of Spain and Portugal in South America in the hope that they will acknowledge the Church’s sovereignty across the European continent. The Church of The Mission is so thoroughly corrupted by power that its members struggle to recognize themselves in the actions of others. In one key sequence, Cardinal Altamirano is surprised to learn that one Guaraní plantation divides its earnings among the workers, commenting that he’s only ever seen this doctrine followed by a “French radical group.” “Your Eminence,” the local priest gently admonishes, “it was the doctrine of the early Christians.”
None of this is to suggest that the Guaraní are simply choosing between two separate versions of the White Savior trope. Underlying the entire conflict is the idea that the Guaraní have lived as victims of those in power since Europeans first landed on their continent. There is a scene in The Killing Fields where Sam Waterston’s character, having just been recognized by his peers for his coverage of the Cambodian crisis, admits to his sister that Dith Pran’s capture was entirely his fault. Pran refused to evacuate with the rest of the Cambodian dependents because Schanberg did not actually want him to leave. Schanberg had weighed the pros and cons of evacuation with his fellow journalists from Europe and the Americas, but had never encouraged Pran’s opinions the way he would any of his other peers. When it came to getting the story, Pran was a resource that Schanberg needed to exploit, and as a result, The Killing Fields is as a bleak an indictment of American foreign policy as it is an uplifting tale of one man’s tale of survival.
Similarly, the Guaraní are victims twice over, first lured out of the jungle with threats of the devil and promises of salvation, and then brutally massacred when they refuse to be cowed a second time. By framing the conflict on a warrior priest and a poet priest, TheMission wants us to consider the turning the crossroads presented by bloodshed and nonviolent resistance, but the film seems caught between cynical globalization and a morality play writ large. There’s an instinct here – perhaps owing to screenwriter Robert Bolt’s past work on sweeping epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago – to downplay the history in favor of the romantic notion of two men holding the line between spiritualism and modernity, but The Mission makes no promises of a happy ending. When Gabriel and Rodrigo are gunned down, it does not inspire the Catholic Church to reaffirm their defense of the missions or inspire the survivors to organize for their freedom. The Guaraní are enslaved or massacred; the Catholic Church maintains its tenuous grasp on power for another day.
Ultimately, The Mission seems to be a film just as caught between the times as its lead character. It wants to speak to the power of belief in a world where ideas are forfeit; it also wants to offer the image of a benevolent missionary in a world still struggling to understand the ramifications of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The only clear message of the film seems to be that those who claim to speak on behalf of the common person but align themselves with the rich and powerful have charted a bloody course throughout world history. There is hope to be found in The Mission – hope centered on the power of community and the role the arts can play in reaching across cultures – but given enough time, we’ll always find a way to destroy the things we think we’re helping. A fittingly bleak view of the intersection of religion and politics at a time where religion and politics are intersecting in pretty bleak ways.