Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Critical Review on Roland Joffe’s The Mission

An essay submitted for Mission & Evangelism class.
August 2009.

A Critical Review on Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986).

This Academy Award winner portrays many urgent issues transposable to our contemporary business of understanding and doing of Church in the face of the immediate secular society and the wider non-secular communities. The dramatized story depicts a real historical situation which took place in the 18th century when the Roman Catholic Church was involved in a political turmoil due to the imperialism endeavours of both the Portugal and the Spain.

During the European imperialism, the Jesuits had planted a few development centres known as the ‘reductions’ among the natives at South America. These centres functioned to evangelise to the indigenous people by educating them with Spanish’s trades and traits[1]. Through various disruptive treaties, which hinged on the distribution of conquered land between Spain and Portugal, the Jesuits nonetheless committed to build up the native communities. Hence on the one hand, there was a group that selflessly wanted to develop the indigenous communities, yet on the other, there were those who captured, enslaved, and exploited the natives for monetary benefits.

The acute irony of these two different motivations had its climax when the Roman Catholic Church retracted the Jesuits’ works done among an indigenous group known as the Guarani. Due to the political pressures from its powerful imperialistic neighbours, the Church readily granted the colonizers the land inhabited by the Guarani. And that act led to the enslavement of the natives. Therefore all the mission works initiated by the protagonist, Father Gabriel, were jeopardized. At the end of the movie, the Jesuit missionaries were massacred along with the Guarani people by the colonizers. Such horrific situation was seen stemming from the Church and its relation to the acquirement of political authority.

The Roman Church as represented by the character of Cardinal Luis Altamirano, S.J., was portrayed as a deluded institution that prioritised its own political standing with the imperialism enterprises of Spain and Portugal rather than the lives of the Guaranis. The political muddle, which the Church has got herself involved in, has paralysed the Church’s function and purposes. One can easily imagine the luxuriously dressed high cardinals who were enjoying their wine in their cathedrals, while the colonists were massacring the Guarani. What happened to the justice and living hood the Roman Church owed to those killed Guarani people? This ironic contrast was given emphasis through the movie’s distinction of the Cardinal’s social stature on one end, and the simplistic lives of the Guaranis and the Jesuit missionaries on the other.[2]

The narrated irony of the Europeans’ motivation led us to wonder how did the Vatican view their mission works at that time. It was the Spanish government together with the Roman Catholic authorities that sent the Jesuit missionaries to evangelise to the Guarani people. Yet when there were political disputes between the surrounding powers, the mediating ecclesiastical institution seemed so readily withdrew from her missionary works, even when those works were undergoing significant development. Are mission works just a form of religiosity, which did not really meant much to them, as the priority was given to political affluences? The history as told in the movie seems to say ‘Yes’.

The interplay between mission theology, history, and political authority should again be re-told within the Church vis-à-vis the movie and its historical baggage. God has overthrown all the authorities in the known existence by raising Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. Since then, all powers and authorities are subjected under the Christ. Thereafter Christ has commissioned his disciples to continue his mission to renew the creation by authorizing them to create the new community on earth.[3] In other words, Christ authorized the Church for a specific mission. Yet when the Church has been given political standing in the state by Constantine and other subsequent emperors beginning in the fourth century A.D., the significance of Christ’s commission started to fade away slowly from the her sight. “Power-hungry, greedy politicians began to take over positions of leadership.”[4] The Church did not think it worthwhile to withhold the commission of Christ, she has exchanged the authority of God for the influences of an emperor; by giving up her divine authorization, she has predisposed herself to the avarices of the mundane.[5] Such was how the Church betrayed her own very institution. The massacre of the Guaranis and missionaries through whimsy decisions made by the Roman Church incorporation with the Spanish King epitomized this betrayal.

The movie also tried to explore the conundrum of the value and authenticity of humans. At the beginning of the movie, there was a scene of how a missionary was being murdered by the Guaranis. Later there was a scene showing a man being killed by his angry and jealous brother over the love of a woman. At the middle of the film, there was an argument over the ‘humanness’ of the Guaranis between a Jesuit and a colonizer. The colonizer justified the exploitation and slavery of the indigenous people by denying them humanness. The native was equated as an animal like a parrot. At the end of the movie were the massacre of the native communities and the Jesuits. The movie consistently depicts the bargain-able value of human lives. It is as if humanity is without authenticity, life has no real significance, and ‘humanness’ is arbitrary. The audience was prompted to wonder whether if this portrayal a constructive enigma or a mere repetitive impasse?

These constant depictions of lost humanity and the lost of humanity without providing any suggestion is the movie’s failure to answer the question it so adamantly demands. It paves no vision and leaves no clue at all. The caption at the end of the movie that narrates the continuous turmoil over the area does little in providing any elucidation. Even the quoted passage from John chapter 1 verse 5 is ambiguous. It is reported that the Jewish film critic Michael Medved deemed the movie as “anti-religious”.[6] I would want to extend Medved’s critique. The movie is not only anti-religious, but also anti-humanity for the reason stated above and below.

No doubt the movie expands our imagination and reminds us over that particular historical period. But it has failed to cultivate or even to ignite the audience’s appreciation for humanness of human, which is the underlying subject in the story. Its inability to maneuver through its own subject and questions renders the movie ambivalent if not meaningless.

Movies with dark plot like ‘The Mission’ often do well in describing the stark human conditions; though always fall short in providing even a glimpse of direction or hope. A similar and recent example is the 2007 Oscar winner in the Best Picture category “No Country for Old Men” with its pervasive necromantic theme that the movie starts and ends with[7].

Often dark movies’ depiction of human’s existential deficiency may transcend from the screen to the audiences’ own experiences. But without contrasting these depictions against direction and hope, that experience stays there and eventually dies there. Such movies may resuscitate the negative sentiments or the deaths in our past but lacking the offer of resurrection to a new life leaves the audience to die the second (existential) death. That could be how one feels when one is shown too much death from the beginning until the end of the movie.

To my opinion, the resurrection element is vital in films, songs, and stories. It is this element that makes a movie or a story life-giving and worth-telling. Such can be seen in 2005 Oscar’s Best Picture “Crash”[8]. Although the story has strong ambivalence, yet the resurrection element overshadowed it by clearly illustrating the changes and contrasts in the various characters’ lives. The movie took the audience through a journey of various level of perceptive appreciation of humanness, especially of those who socially, ethnically, and whose gender are different from us.

Christ’s own vision for ‘humanness’ able to provide such salvific element through movies and stories. This ancient message of a hopeful future and a meaningful present was vividly uttered by Rowan Williams in recent Easter, “Christianity takes it for granted that whether you succeed or fail, you're valuable. God's view of you doesn't depend on how you do, it's always the same love, always giving you a second chance. And once you let that sink in, you can face failure without fear and rage. You'll still try your best, but you're also free to see that if you can't do or get just what you wanted, you still have your dignity before God and so you still have a future.”[9]

This vision is best depicted in ‘Crash’, in the scene where the racist policeman risked his life by rushing back into the overturned burning car to save the black woman he has harassed earlier on. Here we witness the embodiment of the appreciative sense for human lives which enables reconciliation even within racial tension. The policeman’s racism was removed by his willingness to see ‘humanness’ as transcending skin colours, while the black woman’s grudge is replaced by forgiveness and acceptance. ‘The Mission’ lacks precisely such element. The lack emptied itself of the vicarious incitement for appreciating and cherishing the humanness of different people across classes, races, and genders. After being carried through the killings, cries, sacrifices, and killings, again and again in the movie, the audience is left feeling as lost as the Guarani children that survived the mayhem; without any idea what had happened or what will.


[1] These efforts were approved by the 1743 decree of Philip V, disrupted by the Treaty of Madrid in 1750, severely damaged during the Guarani War in 1756, and temporarily relaxed by the Treaty of El Pardo in 1761. New Advent Website, “Reductions of Paraguay”, (accessed on 5 August 2009). Jeannette Gaffney, “Dividing the Spoils: Portugal and Spain in South America”, (accessed on 5 August 2009).

[2] A similar point is made by Vaughan Robert in his essay “Between Eden and Armageddon: Institutions, Individuals, and Identification in The Mission, The Name of the Rose, and Priest” in Explorations in Theology and Film, ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 186.

[3] Matt 28.18, 1 Cor 15.55-57.

[4] David Duncan, The Constantine’s Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 125.

[5] I borrowed the linguistic style of Rom 1.25-28 in constructing this sentence.

[6] Jugu Abraham, “British Director Roland Joffe’s “The Mission” (1986) (UK): A Script for All Seasons”, Movies That Make You Think Blog, entry posted 21 June 2009, (accessed on 5 August 2009). Steven D. Greydanus, “The Mission (1986)”, (accessed on 5 August 2009).

[7] Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, 2007 (80th), (accessed on 5 August 2009).

[8] Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, 2005 (78th), (accessed on 5 August 2009).

[9] Rowan Williams, “Archbishop on Easter – Article for the Mail on Sunday,” posted 12 April 2009, (accessed on 5 August 2009).

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