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Jesuits Can Do No Wrong in Historical Blockbuster ‘The Mission’

By: Laurie Blair - @printsoflblair - Apr 27, 2015, 3:19 pm

Español“The historical events represented in this story are true, and occurred around the borderlands of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil in the year 1750.” Such a statement at the start of a US$20m Hollywood blockbuster is enough to set alarm bells ringing, and the content of The Mission — a 1986 film directed by Paul Joffe — is nothing if not fantastical.

The thundering Iguazu falls form a backdrop to much of The Mission. (Wikimedia)
The thundering Iguazu falls form a backdrop to much of The Mission. (Wikimedia)

Within minutes, we see the martyrdom-by-waterfall of a Jesuit priest at the hands of the Guaraní tribe he’s been sent to convert. Soon after, the unperturbed Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) scales the same waterfalls in cassock and sandals.

He manages to convert the awe-struck natives with nothing more than his trusty oboe. Scowling Spanish slaver Rodrigo Mendoza (Roberto De Niro) passes by, hauling his human cargo off for sale in town.

At a rapid pace the story unfolds. Mendoza kills his own brother in a love quarrel, and is wracked by guilt. Gabriel offers him a chance at redemption in the fledgling mission above the falls, where Jesuit and “Indian” live in simple but productive harmony. But the machinations of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns force Mendoza to return to his old violent ways to try and protect the quasi-socialistic paradise the Jesuits have carved out in the wilderness.

A Unique Experiment

Much of the backdrop to the movie is based in strange reality. Beginning in 1609, Jesuit missionaries — relative newcomers to the new world, having only been founded in 1534 — were given license to create a patchwork of missions across modern-day Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. The missions were home to a radical new experiment in co-existence between colonizer and colonized: rather than forcible conversion, or the open neglect and abuse perpetrated elsewhere, the Jesuits combined indigenous traditions with European technologies to create remarkably successful settlements.

Robert de Niro trades New York for the jungle as slaver-turned-Jesuit Rodrigo Mendoza. (DavidDenies)
Robert De Niro trades New York for the jungle as slaver-turned-Jesuit Rodrigo Mendoza. (DavidDenies)

Visitors noted the striking artistic achievements of the missions: from elaborate religious woodcarvings to orchestras and choirs to rival any of Baroque Europe. Their monopoly on the production of yerba mate and cattle helped supply the burgeoning city of Buenos Aires downriver, and profits were spent on improving the community. The remains of many of the missions still stand today in Paraguay and Argentina: striking brick constructions laid out along the same rigid pattern, open to the sky, grass growing in the nave.

The movie deserves credit, and was garlanded with multiple Academy Award nominations at the time, for bringing attention to a forgotten chapter of history. It’s undeniably powerful as a work of drama, and a reflection on the redemptive, radicalizing, power of faith. De Niro puts his full method-acting chops into the role: he looks close to rupturing himself as Mendoza drags a bundle of armor up the falls in an act of penance, bringing conviction to a clunky visual metaphor.

Fact and Fiction

Yet the movie’s claims to historical veracity are undermined by a politicized message: it portrays the Jesuits as the benevolent leaders of a passive Indian society against colonial evil. Hence the decision to have the priests fight and die alongside their flock at a version of the Battle of Caaibaté (1776) against the evicting Spanish and Portuguese, despite no evidence to support this: they were in fact led by Guaraní chiefs, including the heroic Sepé Tiaraju.

The Guaraní had long been an effective military force under the Jesuits, fighting off Brazilian bandeirantes (slavers) at the battle of Mboré (1641) through effective use of guns and cavalry. The missions, moreover, were rooted in the material interests of colonial Spain, serving as a buffer against the growing Portuguese Empire across a poorly defined border. Beatings and imprisonment were among the Jesuit’s less palatable tools of conversion, and devastating epidemics killed 50,000 between 1735 and 1739 alone.

The remains of the Jesuit mission at Jesús de Tavarangue, Paraguay. (PanAm Post)
The remains of the Jesuit mission at Jesús de Tavarangue, Paraguay. (PanAm Post)

More recent schools of mission scholarship have emphasized how local populations were not the passive “children” of the movie’s vision: rather they often engaged with Jesuit settlements as their own material and political objectives dictated. Joffe leaves such nuance by the wayside, with the movie’s closing text nailing his colors to the mast:

“The Indians of South America are still engaged in a struggle to defend their land and their culture. Many of the priests who, inspired by Faith and Love continue to support the rights of the Indians for justice, do so with their lives.”

Colonial Overtones

The backdrop of Liberation Theology was explicitly acknowledged by Joffe, fresh from making The Killing Fields (1984), as being highly influential in his work. The 1980 murder of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero, was no doubt fresh in the filmmakers’ minds. Yet whatever the role of the Church in denouncing human-rights abuses in the late 20th century, the film is misguided in backdating this several centuries previously.

By focusing too much on praising the Jesuits, it paradoxically does a disservice to the region’s multiple indigenous peoples by whitewashing their identity and agency into a homogeneous mass. In this line comes the decision to draft from Colombian populations the actors to play the natives, rather than Paraguayan locals who were deemed by Joffe to lack the necessary combination of “innocence” and “confidence.”

Worshippers at a Good Friday service in Tañarandy, Paraguay. (PanAm Post)
Worshippers at a Good Friday celebration in Tañarandy, Paraguay. (PanAm Post)

Yet this mix of the religious and material, old and new, defined the Jesuit settlements — and can be still be seen today in the region.

At a Good Friday celebration at Tañarandy, southern Paraguay, worshippers lit flaming torches, chanted hymns, and carried around religious statues: the 17th-century spell only broken when a drone filming events for a local news channel nearly collides with the Virgin Mary and clatters to the earth.

Such contradictions are the essence of mission history. Perhaps they proved too complex for a compelling good versus evil movie, where you can tell the bad guys from a mile off: they’re the ones not wearing a robe.

Laurie Blair Laurie Blair

Laurie is a British journalist currently based in Asunción, Paraguay. The English junior editor of the PanAm Post, he writes on domestic and international politics, economics, history, and human rights. He blogs at Man, the State, and More, and tweets @printsoflblair.