Jeremy Irons in 1986’s ‘The Mission’ / Warner Bros.
Jeremy Irons in 1986’s ‘The Mission’: Interactions with other cultures are nearly always rooted in historical inequalities that make us much less able to make a difference—and much more able to add to the problems—than we might like to believe / Warner Bros.

What We Can & Cannot Fix

Rewatching ‘The Mission’
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If you had any sort of experience with progressive Catholicism in the past three decades, you’re probably familiar with The Mission, the 1986 Roland Joffé film that recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. With an original screenplay by the legendary Robert Bolt (Man for All Seasons, Lawrence of Arabia), the film presents Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro as Jesuit missionaries, the first a pacifist musician named Gabriel, the second a repentant slaver named Rodrigo. They live with the Guarani Indians, speaking their language while teaching them to sing religious hymns and play the violin. But then the mission is transferred to the Portuguese, making the Guarani once again prey to slavers: the moral dilemma begins. The church orders the Jesuits to abandon the mission, dividing them as to tactics. No one will leave, but Gabriel’s faction refuses to do harm even as Rodrigo rediscovers his sword, leading many of the Guarani in a counterattack. All are killed, except a small group of children we see in the final scene, naked, rowing down the river towards a slight possibility of hope.

Today, most people remember The Mission for Ennio Morricone’s iconic soundtrack, yet there’s more to the movie than its music. The Mission was released the same year as the U.S. Bishops’ pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All” and three years after their equally assertive “The Challenge of Peace.” These two letters formed an unapologetic opposition to Reagan-era conservative politics and the growing sense that the Republican Party was the best fit for serious Christians. It was out of disillusionment with the bishops’ perceived move to the left that the Catholic neoconservative movement was born, most famously at magazines like Crisis (1982) and First Things (1990). Latin America was important too. Liberation Theology had worked its way north, influencing lay Catholics (if not their bishops) to link Marxist critique with Christian theology. U.S. Catholics motivated by their Christian commitments, including priests, went to protests in solidarity with Latin American struggles for justice. Like any liberal Catholic kid in the ’90s, I heard all about the famous El Salvador martyrs: the four U.S. churchwomen slain in 1980 and the six Jesuits at the University of Central America alongside assassinated along with their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989. And, most importantly, I learned about Oscar Romero, the bishop of El Salvador shot down while saying Mass, also in 1980. This was the stuff in the air: Latin America, social justice, Jesuits so committed to the poor they’re not afraid of a little trouble. The Mission felt like it figured everything out.

And then there was Dan Berrigan, the famous Jesuit pacifist, who has a bit part in the film. He plays a Jesuit with just one line (“No,” he says, appropriately enough). I didn’t recognize him when I first saw the movie, but if you watch it knowing who he is, it’s amazing how many scenes he’s in, usually next to a very young Liam Neeson. Berrigan also had a significant role in advising the film about the Jesuits and about pacifism. I met him a few times, and we talked, of course, about the movie. He told me that it was his suggestion that created one of the film’s most famous scenes. Originally, Gabriel’s faction was to be killed while celebrating Mass in a church. Yet it was Berrigan’s idea that Gabriel lead his congregation into the bullets. It’s night time, dark except for candle light and gunfire: a thin priest in a cassock holds forward his monstrance, walking slowly alongside the women and children of his congregation, all of them barely flinching as they die.

It was in the air: Latin America, social justice, Jesuits so committed to the poor they’re not afraid of a little trouble

We observe that scene through Rodrigo’s last moments; he is lying on his back, already shot and dying close by. He has died despite his best efforts to save the mission, but, more importantly, the mission has died as well. All is lost. And it’s not clear how we’re supposed to feel about that end. Should Rodrigo have been a pacifist as well? After all, he would have died anyway, and this way he would not have risked his soul. Should both Rodrigo and Gabriel have left the mission as they were ordered to do, or perhaps worked harder to convince the Guarani to go back to the forest? We’re not sure. Yet, near the very end of the film, the bishop sent to clear the mission is talking to one of the brutal politicians responsible for its destruction. “We must work in the world; the world is thus,” the politician tells the bishop. “No Señor Hontar,” the bishop replies, with tears in his eyes. “Thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.” This acknowledgement of our own complicity in the world’s evil hints at our capability to make the world good, a hope furthered by the closing scene of innocent children traveling down the river.

 

Yet there’s a lot wrong with that idea, besides the wooden dialogue and the on-the-nose imagery of naked children: the dilemmas the bishop had earlier outlined to the Jesuits were not the making of any one man, or even one cabal. The courts of Europe were machinating, and the Jesuits had to lose this one, lest the church lose much more. Things are bad, and they are worse than they seem. Interactions with other cultures are nearly always rooted in historical inequalities that make us much less able to make a difference—and much more able to add to the problems—than we might like to believe.

Take, for example, the movie’s final line. The film’s narrative conceit is a letter to the pope from the bishop, sent to determine the future of the mission. As we watch the children row away, we are told that “the spirt of the dead will survive in the memory of the living.” But of course this is not true. There are millions of dead who are simply gone, exterminated by colonizers who would sooner remember the names of their cattle. If an entire tribe falls to genocide, who is left to recall it? Even if we find bodies, somehow preserved in the jungle’s heat, how could we possibly know what it meant to be them? We couldn’t. They are lost, and they are lost because of us.

The problem of what can no longer be known is central to the intellectual movement known as postcolonialism. It was made famous by Gayatri Spivak’s essay, “Can The Subaltern Speak?” which claims, basically, that they can’t. But you can find the same idea in Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, James Joyce, and others: colonization makes a certain way of thinking, and therefore a certain way of living, no longer possible. The mission took the Guarani out of the jungle, whether through a slaver’s net or the warnings of hellfire. And so they were irretrievably changed, and, most importantly, their change was graded on a European curve. When making their case to the bishop that the Guarani were worth saving, it was their capacity at European music that dominated the evidence: we saw through the bishop how they could sing, play violin, even construct the instruments themselves. These people could be Europeans, he saw, which is to say they could be human.

It’s not entirely fair to judge the Jesuits for being products of their time. Especially because they were in many ways ahead of it: they were the ones insisting the Guarani were fully human. In one scene, we gain a wide view of the bishop’s court. On one side are the white folks; on the other side are the Guarani and their many Jesuit friends. Yet this distinction is part of the problem, for of course the Jesuits are white folks too. They are not Guarani. They could leave at any time. The real moral problem of The Mission, then, is not so much its Jesuit characters’ treatment of the Guarani as the film’s portrayal of its central moral problem: the question is never what the Guarani should do with the Jesuits, but rather what the Jesuits should do with the Guarani.

There are exceptions to this rule. It is a Guarani boy who finds Rodrigo’s sword and brings it back to him, encouraging him to lead them in a fight. A few Guarani quietly enter a church to pray alongside Gabriel, who had been sulking alone as Rodrigo and the other fighters train. And, after all, it remains the Guarani’s world “above the falls”: it is their language the Jesuits speak, and while the Jesuits do not change their own clothes, they do not force the Guarani to change theirs. In his final Mass before he is killed, we hear Gabriel utter a prayer in Guarani rather than in Latin. Most importantly, the Guarani have all the weapons. They could kill the Jesuits at any time, as they do in the movie’s iconic opening scene, tying a priest to a cross and sending him over the waterfall.

Jeremy Irons and Fr. Daniel Berrigan, SJ, in a scene from the film

Yet a difference in physical power is not the same thing as a difference in control. It is a European church the Guarani build, European farming they undertake, and European songs they learn to sing for a European (previously Middle Eastern) God. The Jesuits of that time were as unreflective about sharing Jesus as today’s NGOs are about sharing democracy and capitalism, and perhaps there really is nothing wrong with any of it. Perhaps the modern Western way of life really is the best one. But even if we grant such an assumption, there still remain the problems of how these ideas are shared, the coercion and inequality undergirding the interactions, and the real loss of another way to be human.

Viewed this way, the film’s final moral question—can we ever justify war?—seems strangely obtuse. Forget that the film seems to show both “just war” and pacifism as ultimately selfish, an opportunity to show either courage or piety at the cost of keeping children alive. More important is the problem that the question is asked about brown lives rather than with them. It is of course the case that we see the Guarani fighting alongside Rodrigo and praying alongside Gabriel. Yet we do not know their names or their stories. We do not know why they do what they do, what their own conflicts and drives might be. Compare this problem with the more sophisticated También la Lluvia (Even the Rain), a 2010 film about a Spanish film crew filming a movie about Christopher Columbus and Bartolome de las Casas in Bolivia. The crew is smugly certain about their moral credibility given their film’s critique of the bad old colonizers, even as they inadvertently augment and then actively try to ignore the new, different colonization happening in their midst. También la Lluvia is much more interested in the experience of the indigenous people themselves, even as it shows how difficult it to turn that well-meaning interest into actual changes that would protect the rights of indigenous people.

It’s this tension that partially motivated longstanding discussions about a common Jesuit saying that anyone who’s gone to Jesuit schools in the past forty years has heard: men (and now women too) for others. It’s a motto the Jesuits picked up from Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the superior general who did more than anyone else to make the Jesuits a force for social justice. But “for others” soon began to feel too uncomfortable. Some suggested a switch to “with and for others,” which would better emphasize actual solidarity. Yet this became a problem too, because, after all, can the largely middle-class kids at U.S. Jesuit colleges and universities really be “with” the marginalized?  Doesn’t “with” imply a shared experience that these students (and Jesuits) could never claim, despite their noble commitments? 

Yet those Jesuit students’ good intentions must count for something, and surely Jesuit missionaries giving their lives to ministry counts for much more. It’s important to distinguish between the moral problem of radical—even epistemic—inequality and the moral question of what we are to do about that. We’re all implicated in that inequality: it’s an original sin we’re born into whether we like it or not. And there’s no baptism to wash us clean of this either. We’re stuck with benefits we didn’t earn and that we couldn’t give away if we wanted to (again, the Jesuits can always leave the mission). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t better and worse ways to deal with that sin. We live in a broken world that will have to wait an as-yet-unknown time to be fixed. In the meantime, we must do what we can.

It’s that awareness of a broken world that helps us to see the film in a more forgiving light. The Mission is actually not so much a story about the mission as it is an account of Rodrigo’s spiritual journey, using Gabriel’s stoic peacefulness as a constant foil for Rodrigo’s violence. That violence goes from gratuitous to at least possibly justified, and it’s a clever allusion to St. Ignatius’s own relationship to the army and to war. You could easily read this movie as a story about grace, with God using the Guarani to show how all things can be used for love of neighbor and the glory of God, even a soldier’s sordid past. One could ungenerously criticize such a reading, saying that viewing the Guarani that way merely makes them pawns for Rodrigo’s redemption. But aren’t we all part of each other’s redemption? Surely it is at least possible that some of the Guarani might have something good to say about what the mission had done for them?

If Rodrigo and Gabriel were alive today, they would no doubt have approached the Guarani differently, if at all. If Robert Bolt were to have written the screenplay today, he might have subtly changed his focus. Yet these are nonetheless people with good intentions, firm commitments, and an insistence that the Guarani are our neighbors, with lives as worthy as our own. But our world is so broken that even this is not enough. Epistemic violence leaks in. Subtle and unsubtle bigotry remains. Good intentions bring unintended consequences. All of that’s true: we’re never going to clean up this mess. But surely a willingness to have your life changed by the vulnerable is a place to start. The fact that it’s they who make you holy is, of course, unfair to its core. Which is all the more reason to be grateful. And to work.

Published in the May 19, 2017 issue: 

Jeff Guhin is an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA.

This story is included in these collections:

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