Friday 11 April 2008

Morality or Expedience? In the Film The Mission.

Morality or Expedience?
A Study of the Film The Mission Directed by Roland Joffe

The story of The Mission is many faceted, but most of all I would state that it is the struggle for superior morality through a period of political strife, during which morality becomes the easier political sacrifice. The movie also deals with the religious quest of two very different questers, Captain Mendoza and Father Gabriel.
Their struggle involves their responses to the injustice done to the missions to the Guarini by Rome. Therefore, a focus on the aspect of quest, or journey both physical and religious will be maintained while examining the other aspects of this film.

In order
to do that there must be understanding and clarity of the terms to be used. There must be agreement upon the meaning of the rhetoric in order that the rhetoric may have meaning. Since this is the case there are three questions that must be addressed in this endeavour. First, an examination the content of the story; second an analysis of the film as film, and finally the effectiveness of the film techniques and the plot do they accomplishes their intent.

The plot of this film is fascinating in that it incorporates aspects of three plot types, almost equally. These types include: "(1) Plots of action where movement and things happening predominate to express and convey, the subject of the film, (2) plots of Character where we witness the private actions and thoughts of characters in order to express the film's intention, and (3) Plots of ideas where characters become types and more dialogue is employed to express ideas." This movie uses all three plots to develop the ideals, and the content. This story also has elements of foreshadowing and the hint of impending tragedy from the very beginning. The Cardinal who is our narrator sees this from very early on. Our story is his retelling of these events to the Pope, who is now satisfied because, Spain, Portugal and The Church are all satisfied and appeased by the resolution of these issues.

The progression of this story is not linear, it is the Cardinal's dictation of these events and experiences, in a letter to the Pope we assume. The major theme of the movie is that we all have a responsibility for our actions, and that we cannot dismiss our responsibility to be moral and be light in the darkness or at least in the world around us. This story though tragic, gives us the example of men who risked and lived to be light. So in order for this to be a good film, it must portray those events, which actually happened, in a way that causes us to seek to grow, and journey spiritually ourselves, and to learn from the examples of our two protagonists Mendoza and Gabriel. Through learning from them we can then move forward in our own growth, and journey and seek to be light to those around us as well.

Let us begin by examining the Cardinal, and his role. He states early on his tour of the missions, "A surgeon will often hack off a limb to save the body, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the limb I had come here to sever." Thus we see that the Cardina
l from very early on has a feeling that things will end badly. In the middle of the film the Cardinal receives a letter from Rome, when handed it he does not open it, he is asked why not, and he states, "I already know what it says." Then towards the end of the movie, the Cardinal asks if the massacre was really necessary, the response he receives is "You had no alternative your eminence, we must live in the world and the world is thus." The Cardinal replies, "No thus have we made the world." Here we see a man forced to act as a politician, this creates an internal struggle of conscience with his moral compass and his earlier life as a Jesuit. He knows that in order for there to be peace between the Vatican, The Spanish and the Portuguese he must follow his orders from Rome. Even though he does not wish to do so.

It is observed that the Cardinal regrets the situation he is in and the decision he has had to make. He disagrees with the Spanish and the Portuguese governments' representatives who see this as a victory. The Cardinal states that though the Jesuits are dead, they live, and though he is alive he feels dead. Also the film leaves the story open, this struggle though over 300 years old is not yet finished, and like all social injustice we have a responsibility. He knows he is in a tragedy yet unable to act to avert it. A tragedy along the lines of the great Greek tragedies, where the down fall of the protagonist is inevitable.

The two main characters, Father Gabriel and novitiate Captain Mendoza, embark on a quest for fulfilment that ultimately transcends the self. The search for meaning predominates the development of both character and story. A quest is a search or journey, and for our purposes a religious quest, it is at times, as much a spiritual journey as it is physical. The more dramatic of our personal journey's is that of Mendoza who undergoes the transformation from a life as mercenary and slave trader, to becoming a member of the Jesuit order and living and serving among the Guarnini. An examination of five scenes will help us to understand the changes in him.

Our first encounter with the captain involves his capture of some natives to sell them into slavery. Father Gabriel sees him and they dialogue through the forest. Mendoza tells the priest that he may not have time to form a mission. "In the region of the three rivers Parana, Paraguay, and Uraguay the Jesuits set about evangelizing and pacifying the nomadic tribes. They settled them in reductions, Christian villages protected from colonialist exploitation. The first settlement dates from 1610. There were to be about thirty if them, comprising 500,000 inhabitants.

Communal living was organized entirely on Christian foundations. Each reduction was under the control of two or three Jesuits, and the superior in Paraguay was the link between them. There was no such thing as private property, which could be handed on. Everything was owned in common. Paraguay seemed to be the realized Utopia.

With the treaty of Limites in 1750 the reductions passed from Spanish into Portuguese control. The Guaranis resisted for some time, but the suppression of the Jesuits in 1768 dealt the deathblow to the reductions. There was little left: the Jesuits had been too paternalistic and had not trained people to be really responsible." (How to Read Church History Volume 2, Comby & MacCulloch, Crossroads, 1996, p.73,74) Mendoza knows the territory they are in will soon switch hands, in the political realm. Soon after this Mendoza kills his brother in a duel. Father Gabriel meets him in the monastery, The Father offers him penance, to come and work among the natives. The priest says to Mendoza "Do you dare try it?" and Mendoza responds, "Do you dare see it fail?" The dialogue between these two men throughout the film, helps to progress the plot, and to develop the characters. According to the film theoris
t Ernest Ferlita, "1. Analogy of Action, as the surface action moves horizontally, the plot develops horizontally. 2. The quest for meaning, we discover the meaning of our life by three means, a. doing a deed, b. experiencing a value and c. through suffering." Mendoza experiences all three. His suffering is regret for killing his brother in the dual. His deed is to drag all of his armour from the city to the Mission above the falls, during this physical journey he falls three times, just as Christ did on his way to the cross. When he reaches the mission, he is recognised by the natives. One of the natives approaches the kneeling Mendoza and cuts the net with all his armour off and throws it into the river. Mendoza starts to cry, and the young native, lifts his face so all the villagers can see him. The tribe laughs at him, for he is crying. The true burden is finally lifted as his tears mix with laughter. This is the cathartic moment where he experiences a value, he has been accepted, and forgiven by the people he formerly killed and enslaved. During this scene there are many film techniques used, there is the extreme close up shot of Mendoza as he cries. There is the silencing of the scene sounds, and an overlay of just the waterfall music. Then the priest's recorder tune building in the background. The next significant step in Mendoza's personal pilgrimage is his beginning to minister to the natives, he is given a bible book marked at 1 Corinthians 13, about love and true maturity. We have the shot of him reading and the voice over of him reading the passage. Later in the village, Mendoza is offered the opportunity to kill a wild pig the villagers have tracked, and he cannot, he has forsworn killing, apparently even an animal. However, when the missions loose their protective status from the Church and the government the tribe decides to fight and Mendoza plays a key role in their military strategy. The Jesuit captain's armour and weapons are fetched from the river below the falls and he trains the natives, and helps them prepare to defend them self, and their new home the mission. There is a great battle for the mission. As Mendoza is dying he sees Father Gabriel get shot as well. The redemption is complete, once desolate and with nothing to live for, Mendoza now has something to die for, both the faith he has found and the natives he has come to love. In this scene the film technique is used again of an extreme close up on his face, as well, as the scene sounds being silenced, while we hear very discordant music. The music that up until this point had been focused on the city life, is now invading the missions. The journey both physically and spiritually has ended. Although he died, he died for a cause worth dying for, his faith.

The leader of this mission community also devotes his life to finding and communicating life's meaning. Gabriel literally means 'messenger of God' and this is an appropriate appellation for that is his role, to bring God's word to these people, and to be their priest, and spiritual father. Father Gabriel's journey although it overlaps with Mendoza's, is very different. Gabriel is a priest and a Jesuit, from the beginning of our story. He journeys to the top of the waterfalls to replace a priest who had been crucified by the natives above the falls, and dump
ed into the water to go down the falls. He travels to the people since he feels responsible for martyred priest's death. Once he climbs to the top of the falls, he pulls a recorder out of his pack and begins to play it. The natives come out of the woods to listen to him. He is playing a deep melodious peaceful tune, this tune gets repeated and variation on it played throughout the movie in the score. The natives accept Gabriel and a mission work begins above the falls. Gabriel upon a visit to the city accepts the task of trying to save Mendoza. The above-mentioned scene of Mendoza's forgiveness by the natives is preceded by an amazing shot of the six missionaries returning to the mission. The six are silhouetted against the sky walking along the top of the waterfall to the mission. There is then a visual cut to the celebration of the natives at the return of their friends, and spiritual leaders. Later Gabriel has a great struggle, for it becomes apparent that the missions will be sacrificed, in order to protect the Jesuit order and the power of the Catholic Church. For Gabriel the ethical concern is for the work of God among the natives. This view conflicts with that of the Cardinal who identifies the survival of the Church as the key ethical concern. Contrary to the approach of the other clerics Gabriel opts to help the people as a priest and not with violence. While preparations for war are being made Gabriel prepares for mass. During the battle Mendoza fights and kills again, meanwhile Gabriel performs mass. On a physical level neither approach is more successful. Gabriel too is shot proceeding from the chapel with the Blessed Sacrament. Thus we have the death of our other protagonist.

However, though we have success of the spiritual journey for Mendoza and Gabriel, this success is somewhat limited, in that they have not imparted this desire to the surviving native children. To be a true religious journey-man/woman, in my opinion one must not only come to understanding of self, and learn to transcend self, one must also reach the point of helping others to start or journey on their path. An interesting aspect is the choice of the ending, one of the surviving members of the community a young girl returns and picks up a violin from the water to take with her and the other children who head deeper into the forest. This echoes the insight of Comby and MacCulloch as discussed previously. (See footnote # 6) that due to the fact that the Jesuits were more parents to the natives, and had not developed strong national leaders to carry on their work. Therefore though we cannot just say the efforts of the mission above the falls, are complete since there seems to be mitigated success for the next generation.

There is a well developed sense of contrast between the city and nature, and the missions. This is done through music, sound, lighting. In the city the lighting is too bright and harsh, with dark discordant music in the score, and dirty dusty streets and people. However in the jungle and missions scenes are accompanied by soft music such as Gabriel's song on the recorder, which is often repeated with variations along with the sounds of nature, water, waterfalls, and birds and animals. The light in these scenes is also softer and more natural. This also helps to heighten the contrast between political expedience and the moral expedience. The contrast between the music and lighting in the city settings and the missions, the use of orchestration develops and drives the plot. This cinematic direction helps to elicit the desired response from the audience. The use of varied shots and angles shows a master at work, Joffe is a man who knows his craft. The beauty of the scenery mixed with the tragedy in action is a harsh mix and hard to handle.

Certainly the effectiveness of a film should in some measure relate to the reaction of the viewer to the experience. This film causes a cathartic moment for the viewers. My first time through this film I was brought to tears, I can even remember the apartment I was living in, the friends who were there for dinner, what we had and the movie we watched. Knowing it is a true story and one that ends tragically makes it even harder to watch. Although emotionally difficult to watch cinematically it is easy to watch since it is also a fabulous piece of art. In summary, I believe the movie accomplishes it purpose. Prior to the credits there is a simple biblical quotation that reads, "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it." The world though sometimes painfully tragic can be transcended and we have the responsibility to make the world brighter. I do not believe any one could watch this movie and not be moved; could not help but want to change the world. I would have to state that yes the film is a good film, and accomplishes its intent.


  1. Course outline Notes Page 4 Syllabus
  2. The Mission 1996 Directed by Roland Joffe
  3. The Mission 1996 Directed by Roland Joffe
  4. The Mission 1996 Directed by Roland Joffe
  5. The Mission 1996 Directed by Roland Joffe
  6. The Mission 1996 Directed by Roland Joffe
  7. The Mission 1996 Directed by Roland Joffe
  8. Class notes May 29th 2001 Page 1
  9. The Mission 1996 Directed by Roland Joffe


McEvoy, S.R.
Class Notes Summer Term 2001
RS 267

Fenn, M.
Syllabus RS 267 Class handout

Comby, Jean &
How to Read Church History
MacCulloch, Diarmaid Crossroads, 1996, NewYork

Joffe, Roland (Director)
The Mission
1996 Warner Brothers

(First Written for RS267 Film and the Quest for Meaning Spring 2001.)
My review of the film can be see here.

1 comment:

Kelsey Wise said...

thank you for this! this definitely helped my understanding of the movie for my college course.