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Nearly fifteen hundred years ago, St. Isidore of Seville sat hunched over a sheet of parchment, asking himself this question, trying to write a boundary around the soul. Here were the facts, as he knew them: ancient Greek and Roman historians claimed that the edge of the civilized world was populated with a race of dog-headed giants, the cynocephali. They were hunters and traders, who lived by just laws. But they couldn’t speak. They barked instead, like their top halves, and made signs to one another. Saint Isidore saw this as a defining mark of savagery. Their barking, he wrote, “betrays them as beasts rather than men.” In one line, he decided their eternal fate.
Would he have made the same decision, The Mission wonders, if those strangers in the jungle could sing?
The Mission follows Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), the leader of a small cadre of Jesuit priests who risk martyrdom to minister to the native people of South America. They’re soon joined by a disgraced ex-slaver, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a soldier so quick to anger that he murdered his brother in a lover’s quarrel. Father Gabriel believes that Mendoza can find absolution in serving the Guaraní people, and to Mendoza’s surprise, he’s right. The Jesuits and the natives build a home for themselves in a secret place above a waterfall, suspended between earth and heaven; Father Gabriel teaches the villagers hymns, while Mendoza lives side by side with people he once bought and sold. Director Roland Joffé takes his time creating scenes so idyllic we’re as bewitched as the priests themselves, guided through lush scenery and tender, human moments by Ennio Morricone’s aching score.
Then, a half a world away, the Treaty of Madrid is signed, and the land where the Jesuit missions sits is turned over to the pro-slavery Portuguese. The Vatican sends an emissary, Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), to decide whether the missions will be liquefied, and Father Gabriel and his brothers find themselves forced to argue for the Guaraní’s humanity.
In desperation, he turns to what brought the Jesuits and the Guaraní together in the first place: music. A native boy sings for an audience of skeptical Portuguese as Father Gabriel explains something he sees as self-evident: this child is a human, and his voice is proof. Their language is meaningless to the Europeans, but their song stirs something in the Jesuits’ hearts, something they all share. But it’s not enough. As one of the Portuguese landowners comments, “a parrot can be taught to sing.”
Can a soul be created? Is the world divided between savages and people who have heard the word of God? Father Gabriel’s and Mendoza’s advocacy for the Guaraní says no, but their reason for being in the jungle, the mission of the title, says something else. As the Cardinal points out, the Jesuits’ mission is to convert and save, to find the creatures in the wilderness and make them Christians. Make them human. Once that transformation takes place, the newly Christianized become pawns in the struggle between the Spanish and the Portuguese, cannon fodder or saved peoples to be protected, depending on the colonizers’ political need.
This sits badly with the Jesuits, and Mendoza in particular. He’s been forgiven by God and by the people he persecuted, practically gifted a new soul in the aftermath of his crime. But that soul isn’t meekly led. He speaks out on the Guaraní’s behalf at every opportunity, even bucking the authority of the Cardinal to make his point in public. As far as he’s concerned, their mission is on behalf of the natives, not the Church. They were always his spiritual equals, he’s sure of that now. If a slaver and a murderer is worthy of forgiveness, surely the Guaraní deserve compassion from Rome.
We see the missions through the Cardinal’s eyes as he tours them. He’s confounded by the peace he witnesses, the happiness and order of people creating and consuming their own goods. In Father Gabriel’s mission, high above the falls, he witnesses the Jesuits living among the Guaraní in a new Eden, and listens to native children sing hymns as beautifully as any choir in St. Peter’s. He’s an educated man, maybe even a kind man, genuinely moved by the Jesuits’ work, and he knows exactly what would be lost in turning the Spanish holdings over to the Portuguese. He does it anyway.
Immediately the dominos begin to fall. The Portuguese are poised to take the land, and despite having converted the native people, the Church has no further interest in their fate. In this political climate, they’re worth more as gibbering slaves than as Christian men and women. It’s an old story. Centuries before, Isidore of Seville’s speechless barking monsters helped define the edges of the civilized world. They were drawn on maps, snarling, and medieval Christians were strangely comforted by the sight. Here were monsters, as the old expression goes. Here and no further.
Mendoza is compelled to fight the ruling; he’s a soldier, a man of action who’s come to love the Guaraní like his own family. Protecting them with his life is the only moral choice he can imagine making. He prepares for war, something Father Gabriel refuses to condone.The Jesuit father instead gathers the native people to him and leads them through Mass as the Portuguese forces close in. He has them sing the sacred songs any good European would know, a final, defiant testament to their humanity.
The movie isn’t interested in which approach could be called correct, or even effective. After all, Mendoza, Gabriel, and the Guaraní are shot dead. It simply serves as a witness to two men following the dictations of their conscience. When Mendoza’s warriors fail and the Portuguese set fire to the mission’s chapel, Father Gabriel leads his surviving flock from the wreckage, still singing. Their voices slowly melt into the score as they’re picked off one by one, until all we’re left with is the sweet melody Gabriel played for the Guaraní on their first meeting. Morricone’s work is emphatic: each broken body carried this song in its heart.
It’s an ugly thing to feel so relevant in 2017. To think that we still need reminders that strangers of a different gender, or in another zip code, or fleeing across Europe, all have souls as real and vivid as our own. The Mission shows us how easily that truth is denied, but it also urges us to see how it can be defended, even how to take action to protect those whose humanity is, somehow, shamefully, up for debate. Mendoza fights, Gabriel forces the encroaching powers to see the people they’re abusing. The coming years will ask a lot of us, and we can’t all die on a Portuguese bayonet, but advocating for the powerless, amplifying their voices in the face of those who only see them as monsters, is as necessary now as it was in a jungle five hundred years ago.