The Mission (1986)

Pacifism is weakness. Pacifism is morally suspect. Pacifism is unmanly, untenable, un-American.

If you’re raising your Knucklehead to at least consider pacifism as an ethical option, you don’t need me to tell you that cinematic role models are scarce. Sure, there’s Gandhi, but he’s a little iconic for day-to-day purposes, not to mention a touch exotic. What else you got? Not much. There’s Jimmy Stewart in the hugely entertaining Destry Rides Again (1939), but even he has to ultimately prove his talent with a gun, even if his character has sworn off firearms. I think no matter what your feelings on pacifism, The Mission is a powerful study on our choices to use violence in a broken world.

Jeremy Irons is Gabriel, a Jesuit priest who comes to South America in the 18th century to establish a mission. He is there to win souls, but to also provide protection for the native Guarani against the slave trade. Robert De Niro plays Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary who hunts the jungles for potential slaves for the Portuguese landowners. The two are set off as adversaries from the beginning, but when the quick-tempered Mendoza slays his brother in a moment of jealousy, it is Gabriel who is called upon to rescue Mendoza from his despondency. Mendoza’s decision to remake himself as a man of God causes him to turn his back on his violent past and dedicate his life to helping the people he enslaved. But when the very existence of the Guarani is threatened, each of the Jesuits must decide how best to protect them.

Gabriel is ready to fight, but he will not use violence in doing so. We’ve seen this before, but not with the kind of steel that Irons brings to his performance. There are several scenes in the film where Gabriel faces imminent personal harm or death, and in each of those scenes, Irons allows us a glimpse of the fear, and even terror his character is facing. Ironically, I think this is the key to Gabriel’s strength; by showing us his fear, we understand that he is not acting out of ignorance, or naivete, or because of a blind delusion that his faith will protect him. He is afraid, and yet he chooses to act as his conscience dictates. It is no wonder that Gabriel is the only man in the film to earn the respect of De Niro’s mercenary.

There are a hundred reasons for your Knucklehead and you to sit down with this film. Besides the ethical discussion of what’s worth fighting for and how, there’s a legitimate question of how far our promises of loyalty or obedience should take us. But there’s also the breathtaking cinematography (for which this film won an Oscar), and Ennio Morricone’s beautiful score (yes, he of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly theme – if that’s all you know of his work you really owe it to yourself to listen to more of the man’s work). And, hey, if you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you can even keep an eye peeled for one of his earliest screen appearances.

But there’s one final question for you and your Knucklehead to consider, and this is doubly important if you’re adherents to an organized religion. Ask yourselves: Who best represents The Church in this film? Is it Gabriel? Mendoza? The cardinal? Many claim in this film to act in the name of God. Who does? Or perhaps more importantly, who acts for the Guarani, and is there a difference?

Many of the actors in this film were actually native South Americans. As such, you and your Knucklehead will be exposed to extremely brief shots of naked native boobies and in-context nudity. If that sort of thing bothers you, well, there you are.

The Mission

Destry Rides Again


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4 Responses to The Mission (1986)

  1. Donna Martin says:

    Great review for a great film.

  2. Michael Snow says:

    “…..cinematic role models are scarce”
    Yes, but you forget that Jesus has had many major cinematic roles.
    And must we depend on Hollywood for role models? Heaven help us.

    • But we do depend on Hollywood for role models, for good or ill. For a hundred years, the movies have taught us what’s cool, what’s funny, how to dress, how to date, what’s heroic and what’s cowardly. To deny the influence of film on us and our culture is unrealistic. My hope with this post, was to point out something missing in Hollywood’s definition of “hero” and demonstrate how at least one really good film attempted to fill that gap.
      Thank you for reading, and taking the time to reply. Not being a Christian, I haven’t found Jesus to be a useful role model in my life. But from the link you shared, it seems that we’re both looking for a better world for us and the people we love. Thanks for fighting the good fight!

  3. Pingback: CHRIS: The Mission (Joffé, UK, 1986) | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative

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