Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Mission

The Mission posterThe period piece The Mission (1986) is set in the 18th century of what is now southern Brazil, when the struggle for territory surged between the Portuguese and Spanish colonists and an even greater war was waged between Jesuit missionaries and slave traders over the lives of the indigenous people populating the area.

The death of a priest at the hands of the Guarani, an indigenous tribe, is the first event to set in motion the main plot of the film. Due to the guilt of sending the previous priest there to encounter his death, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) treks to the Guarani village above the majestic, but treacherous, waterfalls, deep in the heart of the jungle. There Father Gabriel meets the Gaurani and at first is accepted as an oddity as he quietly plays his flute by a stream and the tribe’s hunters silently surround him to listen. The Guarani then accept him as one of their own as he teaches them about Christianity and begins to build a mission. Alas, this realm of harmony does not last. While out in the jungle, several Guarani hunters are captured by the slave hunter Captain Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) and brought to the settlement of Asunción to be traded to the Portuguese. This troubles Father Gabriel because these slave hunters have never before ventured above the falls. Back in Asunción, Rodrigo’s life slowly spirals out of control as finds out that his girlfriend, Carlotta, has fallen in love with Rodrigo’s brother, Felipe, during Rodrigo’s absence. Rodrigo’s jealous rage leads him to slay his brother in a duel. Seeing as the law can not touch him because the death occurred in a consensual duel, Rodrigo retreats to a cell-like room of the church to seek the penance of being his brother’s killer, a penance which he can not achieve through civil law. It is here that Gabriel comes across him and agrees to bring him back to the Guarani village to help him overcome his grief. Rodrigo physically carries the burden of his brother’s death in the form of a sack of metal armour which he laboriously lugs up the mountain. He has now taken upon himself the role of that which he once hunted: a slave. Upon reaching the village, the Guarani hold a knife to the throat of this known slave-trader, but when Gabriel motions for them to let him live, they instead cut the rope to the sack of armour which attached Rodrigo physically and metaphorically to his shame. This act of compassion brings Rodrigo to tears as the tribesman, the priests, and Rodrigo all embrace and join in a bout of joyous laughter.

The power of the indigenous people’s kindness soon permeates Rodrigo and he commits his life to being a Jesuit priest. The priests work side-by-side with the Guarani as they construct the San Carlos Mission, learn the indigenous language, and convert many to Christianity. But again this harmony does not last as His Eminency, Altamirano (Ray McNally) of the European Papacy, arrives in Asunción to try to decide through the power of the Church what is to be done with these indigenous people, causing all the priests in the Guarani village to return to the colony. There they lobby against the transfer of Guarani territory to Portugal as this would invite the Portuguese to enlist all the Guarani people as slaves. The Spanish support this land transfer as, unbeknownst to the Church, they secretly take part in the slave trade. The decision rests with Altamirano and so he decides to visit several of the surrounding Jesuit missions to see how the conversion to Christianity is progressing. His findings are impressive: indigenous people living on the morals of the church and discovering their own unique talents via the arts and music. Yet, the tremendous pressure from greedy Spanish and Portuguese colonists, who desire the Guarani territory and its inhabitants, still weighs heavy on Altamirano, and so Gabriel invites him to journey to the San Carlos Mission to help him clear his head. Here, Altamirano is overwhelmed with the spiritual and cultural ‘advancement’ of the Guarani but, much to Gabriel’s dismay, he still decides to give the territory to Portugal though the historic Treaty of Madrid (1750), which would cast the Guarani out of the protection of the Church. His Eminency asks the Guarani to retreat from the mission back into the jungle, but the Guarani accept the mission as their home now and choose to fight instead.

The decision of the Church ignites a fire of hostility in all the priests as they revoke their vows of obedience; all except Gabriel, who chooses, after much deliberation, to fight this decision with love instead of with brute force. The other priests are led by ex-mercenary Rodrigo in a plan that would attack the advancing Portuguese forces from the river and the jungle. Scenes of the brutal and heartless round-up of indigenous slaves in the colonies prophesize the same cruelty about to befall the Guarani. Although the priests lay several clever traps and catch the Portuguese troops by surprise, they still fail to defeat the advancing threat. Several of the priests are killed among the multitude of Guarani during the preliminary fight scenes. At a crucial moment in the battle when Rodrigo is about to blow up a bridge, he instead turns to help two small Guarani children get to safety. This demonstrates his complete transformation of compassion from mercenary to Jesuit priest, but also allows the Portuguese to invade the village. The Guarani women and children, led by Gabriel holding a gold crucifix, walk slowly through the burning village as arrows fly through the air, piercing bodies randomly. Rodrigo is shot and shortly after an arrow kills Gabriel. Rodrigo’s last vision is of Gabriel collapsing to the ground and the Guarani crowd picking up the crucifix to continue their slow march to certain death; an image which shows the moral accomplishment achieved by the priests, but also their epic failure as both versions of the priests’ resistance prove unsuccessful. The film ends with Altamirano questioning the colony leaders about the slaughter of the Guarani, but still knowing that he had ultimately sanctioned the purpose for their deaths. The few Guarani children left alive are then shown rowing a canoe up-river, away from the lives they had known and the carnage that now remains.

The film portrays two feuding sides: first, the mercenaries against the Jesuit priests, followed by the Jesuit priests disputing the colonists and the Church in the name of protecting indigenous rights; and with the Guarani people constantly wedged in the middle of it all. Rodrigo personifies the transition of these two battles as his character finds its vitality and purpose through his connection to the indigenous tribe. But as was seen in the film, this harmony can not be maintained. Even in real life, South America and its indigenous cultures are seen only as a massive chunk of territory ready for the taking by foreigners and South American governments alike. This is displayed most boldly by the fact that the film-makers had attempted to use the actual Guarani people to perform in the movie, but instead decided on the Waunana, a Colombian tribe, when the Guarani proved to be too assimilated and desolate for any use. How ironic that the cultural propagation presented in the film is sent spiraling by the present situation of the Guarani people. The reality that the culture of the Waunana tribe is also nearing the point of extinction presents the question of when this vicious cycle of assimilation will end.

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