Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why is “The Mission” So Troubling?

The past week in our parish has been framed by three Catholic films. Each film places a saint in harm’s way in distinct historical circumstances. One film is uplifting, one annoying, and the third depressing. I wondered why.

A week ago, our parish’s Catholic Film Festival kicked off with “A Man for All Seasons,” a film I have seen at least a dozen times and written about here. Robert Bolt’s story of St. Thomas More’s battle of conscience with Henry VIII always leaves me with head and heart high. Fred Zinnemann’s film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture 45 years ago, puts its hero squarely at the center of the action. More is the clear protagonist, while his daughter Margaret is the sympathetic, innocent bystander and stand-in for us, on whom the tragedy registers. Although More loses his head, he holds on to his integrity. A final voice-over tells us that in the end the saint may have got the best of the bargain: Cromwell was beheaded for high treason; the Duke of Norfolk would have been beheaded, only the King died of syphilis the night before; and the pathetic turncoat Richard Rich “became Chancellor of England and died in his bed.” Roll credits and triumphal music.

Monday evening, with some friends from our local School of Community I saw the new Opus Dei movie, “There Be Dragons,” directed by Roland Joffe. I detailed my reasons for being annoyed with the film here. Last night our Catholic Film Festival continued with Joffe’s film “The Mission,” about Jesuit missionaries among the indigenous peoples of South America circa 1750. It was coincidence that we saw two Joffe films in three nights, but what a contrast! “The Mission,” which won the Grand Prize at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, remains an indelible work of art.

“The Mission” places two fictional characters in a distinctly historical setting: South America, 1750, when the Spanish and Portuguese were carving up the continent. Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a big-eyed career missionary who courageously climbs the rock face beside a monumental waterfall to evangelize the indigenous people living in the jungle atop the falls, the Guaraní. Robert DeNiro is the mercenary Mendoza, who joins the Jesuit order after killing his brother in a fit of jealousy. Among the best scenes in the film is that of Mendoza climbing the falls with an enormous burden hanging from him by a rope—his act of penance for fratricide. When he reaches the top and the burden is allowed to fall away, DeNiro’s face registers all the blessedness of Grace.

“There Be Dragons” and “The Mission” are parallel films. The Opus Dei pic also introduces us to a pair of characters, one a career cleric (St. José Maria Escrivà) and one a militant (his boyhood friend, who becomes a leftist partisan in the Spanish Civil War). But “The Mission” has a third character, a pivot point, which “There Be Dragons” lacks. We may feel the respective pains of Father Gabriel and Mendoza, the committed celibate and the man of lust and violence, who takes up the sword at the end of the action, despite his vows. But Joffe makes us see the story, whether we like it or not, through the eyes of a third character, Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally, pictured).

The drama of “The Mission” is unleashed by Altamirano, a representative of the Church who is all that stands between the Guaraní and obliteration. He must decide whether to prevent Portuguese slave traders from taking over the Jesuit missions that protect them. The film begins with Altamirano staring into our eyes, as he begins to dictate a letter to the Pope eight years after the main action. The film ends with another glance from Altamirano, an accusatory one this time. By making Altamirano the eyes of his film, Joffe makes us, the viewers, complicit in his crime.

There is a remarkable scene near the middle of the movie when Father Gabriel, hoping to convince Altamirano to spare the missions of San Miguel and San Carlos, takes him to see them. The cardinal’s preconceptions fall away as the kindly Guaraní lead him by the hand, sing great choruses of Ave Maria to his astonished ears, and show him the remarkable temples they have built in the jungle with the aid of the Jesuits. His face melts. He smiles without a trace of irony or calculation. He is transformed by the event of visiting the missions. Christ is present here.

And yet the following day the curtain has closed, Altamirano’s foregone conclusion written on his face. Father Gabriel had best abandon the Guaraní, because there’s nothing the cardinal can do to halt the march of progress, or the Portuguese cannons. The final scenes are a predictable blood bath, as the cannons now are hauled above the falls and used to blow away the Guaraní and their Jesuit protectors. The only triumph here is a final Eucharistic procession. Gabriel falls to gunfire with the Blessed Sacrement in his hands, while the mortally wounded Mendoza stares in mute Adoration.

But Joffe leaves us with a look from Altamirano, whose logic is one we all understand: Sometimes a surgeon must lop off a limb to save the body. By sacrificing the Jesuit missions in South America, we understand, the Church was able to save the order in Europe—though only for a time. After the French Revolution of 1789, Jesuit doors were slammed and the order discredited throughout the Continent. Altamirano’s was only a holding action, the choice of regrettable means for desirable ends—and one Thomas More never would have made.

“The Mission,” then, is troubling because Joffe makes it clear that Altamirano is us. The end music, which restates a European orchestral theme over a lovely Guaraní tune, is soulful, melancholic, but hardly triumphal.

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