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The Mission

Original movie poster
Directed by Roland Joffé
Produced by Fernando Ghia
David Puttnam
Written by Robert Bolt
Starring Robert De Niro
Jeremy Irons
Ray McAnally
Aidan Quinn
Cherie Lunghi
Liam Neeson
Music by Ennio Morricone
Cinematography Chris Menges
Editing by Jim Clark
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) Spain:
29 September 1986
United States:
31 October 1986
Running time 126 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $24,500,000

The Mission is a 1986 British film about the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in 18th century South America. The film was written by Robert Bolt and directed by Roland Joffé. It stars Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi and Liam Neeson. It won the Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. In April 2007, it was elected number one on the Church Times Top 50 Religious Films list.[1] The music, scored by Italian composer Ennio Morricone, was listed at #23 on AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores.



The film is set in the 1750s and involves the Jesuit Reductions, a programme by which the Catholic Church sought to Christianise and "civilise" the indigenous native populations of South America. It tells the story of a Spanish Jesuit priest, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), who enters the South American jungle to build a mission and convert a community of Guaraní Indians to Christianity, and of the eventual destruction of the missions by the secular Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments.

The gentle Father Gabriel to scales the hazardous falls and reach out to a tribe of Guaraní. Entering the jungle, Father Gabriel sits and begins to play his oboe. Drawn to the sound, the Guaraní warriors prepare to kill him, but captivated by the beauty of the music they allow him to live and he gently and gradually wins their trust.

Meanwhile, a mercenary and slaver, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), makes his living kidnapping the natives and selling them to the nearby plantations. He is shown to have a human side, caring deeply both for his brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn) and fiancee Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi). However, when Carlotta reveals that she has fallen in love with Felipe, and Mendoza subsequently finds them in bed together, in his anger he kills Felipe in a duel. Acquitted of the killing, as it resulted from a legal duel, Mendoza spirals into depression and withdraws from society. Father Gabriel, who has temporarily returned from beyond the falls and learned of Mendoza's situation, visits and confronts him, challenging Mendoza to have the courage to undertake a suitable penance.

Mendoza accompanies the Jesuits on their return journey, doggedly pulling a large net filled with his armor and weapons through the forest and mud as the party scales the Iguazu Falls. Still despondent, Mendoza refuses help and proceeds until he collapses. One of the Jesuit priests Fielding (Liam Neeson) cuts away the bundle, releasing Mendoza of his penance. Mendoza recovers the bundle, re-ties it, and resumes the grueling journey. Later the priest discusses with Father Gabriel that he and the other brothers believe Mendoza has suffered enough. Father Gabriel replies that it is only for God and Mendoza to decide when he has done enough penance. Reaching the Guaraní camp, the tribe is alarmed that the priests are accompanied by Mendoza. A member of the tribe appears prepared to slit Mendoza's throat - instead, he cuts the ropes to which Mendoza's burden is tied and pushes the armor and weapons over a cliff. Finally symbolically relieved of his violent past, and the recipient of the tribe's forgiveness, Mendoza breaks down into weeping and eventual laughter.

Father Gabriel's mission is depicted as a place of sanctuary and education for the Guaraní. The Jesuits teach the Indians to carve and play flutes and violins and sing, as well as reading, writing, and mathematics. Moved by his acceptance by the Guaraní, Mendoza asks Father Gabriel how he might help. Father Gabriel gives Mendoza a Bible and asks him to read it. The film contains a voice-over of Mendoza reading 1 Corinthians 13 as he interacts with the Guaraní, particularly the children, and observes their gentle, natural life. Mendoza goes on to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and becomes a Jesuit under Father Gabriel.

Shifting political winds in Spain and Portugal result in the signing of a treaty redefining the division of lands in South America. The Portuguese colonials seek to enslave the natives, and as the independent Jesuit missions might impede this, Papal emissary Altamirano is sent to survey the missions and decide which, if any, should be allowed to remain.

Under pressure from both local plantation owners and the politicians in Europe, Altamirano is forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. If he rules in favour of the colonists, the indigenous peoples will become enslaved; if he rules in favour of the missions, the entire Jesuit Order may be condemned by the Portuguese and the Catholic Church fractured in Europe. Altamirano visits the missions and is amazed at the industry and success he finds. As he dictates his report he states "Your Holiness, a surgeon to save the body must often hack off a limb. But in truth nothing could prepare me for the beauty and the power of the limb that I had come here to sever." At Father Gabriel's mission of San Carlos he tries in vain to explain the reasons behind closing the Mission and instructs the Guaraní that they must leave. The Guaraní, now viewing the Mission as their home, refuse and question how he can claim to speak for God. Frustrated, Altamirano rules that Father Gabriel's mission must be closed. Father Gabriel and Mendoza state their intention to defend the Mission should the plantation owners and colonialists at the foot of the falls attack.

Father Gabriel and Mendoza debate how to respond to the impending military attack. Father Gabriel believes that violence is a direct crime against God's love and argues they should trust God and not respond with violence. Mendoza, however, decides to break his vows in order to militarily defend the Mission. Against Father Gabriel's wishes, he teaches the natives the art of war and once more takes up his sword.

When the colonialists attack, the Mission is initially defended by Mendoza and the Guaraní, but they are no match for the military force. As the colonial soldiers enter the mission village they are slowed by the haunting songs of Father Gabriel and the Guaraní women and children, who march toward the troops unarmed, singing and holding a cross and monstrance with the Blessed Host. In spite of this, the soldiers' commander orders the attack and all the priests and most of the Guaraní, including women and children, are gunned down. Only a handful escape into the jungle.

In a final exchange between Altamirano and a Portuguese official, the official laments that what happened was unfortunate but inevitable because "we must work in the world; the world is thus." To which Altamirano replies, "No, Señor Hontar, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it." Days later, a canoe of young children return to the scene of the Mission massacre and salvage a few belongings, including a broken violin, which one of the children plays. They set off up the river, going deeper into the jungle, leaving behind the scorched church. A final title declares that Jesuits and others continue to fight for the rights of indigenous people. Finally the text of John 1:5 is displayed: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."



The Mission soundtrack was written by Ennio Morricone. Beginning with a liturgical piece (On Earth as It Is In Heaven) which becomes the "Spanish" theme, it moves quickly to the "Guaraní" theme, which is written in a heavily native style and uses several indigenous instruments. Later, Morricone defines the "Mission" theme as a duet between the "Spanish" and "Guaraní" themes. Other themes throughout the movie include the "Penance", "Conquest", and "Ave Maria Guaraní" themes. In the latter, a huge choir of indigenous people sing a haunting rendition of "Ave Maria" in their native language.

An excerpt from the soundtrack is used during the final episode of the American TV series The Wonder Years.

Historical basis

The Mission is based on events surrounding the Treaty of Madrid in 1750, in which Spain ceded part of Jesuit Paraguay to Portugal. The film's narrator, "Altamirano", speaking in hindsight in 1758, corresponds to the actual Andalusian Jesuit Father Luis Altamirano, who was sent by Jesuit Superior General Ignacio Visconti to Paraguay in 1752 to transfer territory from Spain to Portugal. He oversaw the transfer of seven missions south and east of the Río Uruguay, that had been settled by Guaranis and Jesuits in the 1600s. As compensation, Spain promised each mission 4,000 pesos, or fewer than 1 peso for each of the circa 30,000 Guaranis of the seven missions, while the cultivated lands, livestock, and buildings were estimated to be worth 7-16 million pesos. The films climax is the Guarani War of 1754-1756, during which historical Guaranis defended their homes against Spanish-Portuguese forces implementing the Treaty of Madrid. For the film, a re-creation was made of one of the seven missions, São Miguel das Missões.[2]

Father Gabriel's character is loosely based on the life of Paraguayan saint and Jesuit Roque González de Santa Cruz.

The waterfall setting of the film suggests the combination of these events with the story of older missions, founded between 1610-1630 on the Paranapanema River above the Guaíra Falls, from which Paulista slave raids forced Guaranis and Jesuits to flee in 1631. The battle at the end of the film evokes the eight-day Battle of Mbororé in 1641, a battle fought on land as well as in boats on rivers, in which the Jesuit-organized, firearm-equipped Guarani forces stopped the Paulista raiders.[3]

Awards and nominations

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Academy Awards

BAFTA Film Awards

Cannes Film Festival

  • Palme d'Or – Roland Joffé (won)[4]
  • Technical Grand Prize – Roland Joffé (won)[4]

Golden Globe Awards

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ James Schofield Saeger (1995) "The Mission and Historical Missions: Film and the Writing of History." The Americas, Vol. 51, No. 3, pp. 393-415.
  3. ^ Saeger, ibid.
  4. ^ a b "Festival de Cannes: The Mission". Retrieved 2009-07-11. 

External links



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