Sunday, March 30, 2008

the mission

This is an amazing movie. You should see it. I think it's from the '80s, with Robert Deniro and Liam Neeson. Here are a few preliminary thoughts.

Jesuit monks journeyed to a jungle village in South America in colonial days (I believe it said 1750) and began a Christian mission among the indigenous people. The first monk to travel there was killed, so Father Gabriel returned there and gained the confidence of this tribe. He later brought with him two other monks and a novice, Rodrigo Mendoza (Deniro), a former slave trader who killed his brother and became a monk as penance. A cardinal named Altamirano is sent to assess the situation of the Spanish missions as the land on which the missions are placed is handed over to the Portuguese. In order to save the Jesuit order, Altamirano orders the monks to leave their missions and withdraws the protection of the Spanish. It is legal in Portugal, but not Spain, to capture and sell slaves, so the Portuguese will come into the area with the goal of capturing slaves. Knowing this, the monks refuse to leave their mission and the people who have trusted them and believed in their God of love. Father Gabriel refuses to fight, believing God calls Christians to the higher road of nonviolence. The other monks help the tribal men prepare to defend themselves from the gun-toting Portuguese, believing this cause to be just enough that they renounce their vows of nonviolence. Although the tribe puts up a worthy fight (violently speaking) and many tribe members, led by Father Gabriel, stand nonviolently before their church with Christian symbols everywhere, the Portuguese win and wipe out all but a few of the villagers (who hide and then leave to make a new life deeper in the jungle). The Portuguese Christian soldiers show that their conscience is pricking them when they hear the villagers singing “Ave Maria,” but they follow orders anyway. Altamirano knows that this act was evil and its brutality unnecessary, but he sees no alternative when he must live in a world humans have made to be this way. In his mind, he must sacrifice these monks and villagers who are faithful to the God he professes, for the greater good.

Some of the questions and themes addressed: What's worth living for? What's worth dying for? At what point is it necessary to sacrifice one's principles and live realistically? How do we live as Christians in a fallen world?


This movie puts the four Christian responses to war (pacifism, just war, realism, holy war) together and compares and contrasts their motives and effects. It basically concludes that although living a principled life that follows Christ's call to peacemaking or just defense of the innocent is noble, it is not realistic and in the end can lead only to noble tragedy. Altamirano is shown as the real hero, who, although he shows remorse for the choice he had to make, has chosen the only realistic alternative. Those who engaged in holy war (the Portuguese soldiers who believed this act was one of loyalty for their country and therefore for God) were also shown in a favorable light, for although their consciences bothered them they sucked it up and followed orders--so any wrongdoing was not their own, it was their superiors'.

There was an enormous amount of religious symbolism in this movie. I was struck by the symbolism of Rodrigo dragging a load of heavy metal armor up the mountain as his penance for killing his brother: he didn't do this penance because he had to, but because he chose to hold on to the guilt. He was freed from this guilt by a community that welcomed him in, understood him without words, and gave him something to live for—and to die for.

There were many holy moments, but here are a few: When Father Gabriel said, “If might makes right—and maybe so, maybe so—then love has no place in this world. And I can't live in a world like that.” I feel this same way, and hope and pray that I would respond thus in a similar situation. In the face of injustice there is still hope in obedience to perfect love. The culminating scene, where the villagers walked into the massacre singing “Ave Maria” was incredibly powerful. It was difficult to watch and I hated it, but it juxtaposed the way the church should be in the world with the way it often is in a way that could scarcely have been done in a more effective way. The native man picking up the gilded Catholic cross after Father Gabriel fell was also a holy moment. The native people singing in Latin, holding the symbols of the Latin church, being slaughtered at the behest of the Latin hierarchy—amazing symbolism. The moment of Rodrigo's release from holding onto the sin of his brother's murder was also a holy moment, but I already talked about that. Altamirano's discussion with the slave traders at the end was holy in that it made one choose between the way of the world—living in the world and trying to succeed in it—or living more closely to the example of Christ and suffering the consequences. The Portuguese trader said, ““We must live in the world, and the world is thus.” Altamarino responded, “No, seigneur, thus we have made the world,” and yet he continued to live by the evil structures of the world, compromising his principles for the sake of “the church.” The scene forces a choice of a similar nature for the viewer (although I think its dichotomy of “realist” versus “ineffective idealist” is a false one).

2 comments:

Robin M. said...

I saw this in the dorm room of the Jesuit chaplain of my freshman dorm - he regularly hosted movie and discussion nights but this is the only one I really remember.

My other good story about this movie is that I saw the building that was used as the set for the church - it's actually a discoteca in Santa Marta on the north coast of Colombia, just east of Cartagena. I was there not long after the filming ended.

Allison said...

I loved this movie when I saw it the first two times. I ought to watch it again, this time critically viewing it through the lens of indigenous people.