A period film is mysticism masquerading as empiricism–it’s sorcery posing as a telescope and a microscope. It’s the sublime adorned in the devious costume of verisimilitude. A period film is like a hall of mirrors, reflecting back reality so many times that the viewer doesn’t necessarily know what is mirroring what. The further the viewer dives into the film, the more dizzy that viewer might become, trying to determine what’s really being represented on the screen. Such a film has the potential to be those things, or at least those are my thoughts upon rewatching the academy award winner for Best Cinematography, The Mission (1986). The film is set in mid-eighteenth century South America, near present day Argentina.
When I was watching The Mission a storm of questions came into my mind, each feeding into the others, creating a maelström of doubts, implications, and thoughts about what was being represented on screen:
Is this film I’m watching objectively representing its ostensible historical moment? Or is it an allegory for something going on at the time the film was made? Why does the film’s depictions of those historical events seem so similar to my here and now, as the viewer? If the film reminds me of the here and now, then is it somehow mirroring something about the human condition, and if so, is that likeness accidental? In other words, did the filmmakers intend to make something allegorical?
Wait, how faithful is the film to the historical tale it’s telling anyway? And if it is not mirroring the past, and I–the viewer–am still able to connect its story to both my present (2020) and the director’s present (1986), then that would seem to imply that the film is representing something timeless, and 1750, or 1986, or 2020, are the shadows of that timeless truth. What’s more real, the big “T” truth in the film, or the little “t” truth (or facts) of this or that historical moment?
Oh crap, did I just say, Beetlejuice three times? No? Well, then, did I just say Plato, three times? No? Well, let me go ahead and say it, then: “Plato, Plato, Plato.” And here we go. Let’s talk about mimesis and The Mission.
Mimesis is a greek word meaning to mirror or to represent. Plato’s explanation of mimesis conceives of art as a reflection of the empirical lived reality that we all experience, and it assumes that that reality is itself a projection of a greater reality, the world of the ideas–a world of perfect forms outside of our own. The implication of this belief system is that the world of ideas is the most real. Beneath this world of ideas is our present reality, which is a shadowlands, a mirror, a dream of that reality. And then beneath our present reality would be art, theatre, fiction, and dancing. They are a representation of everyday reality, a knock off of a knock off. If TLC were to paraphrase Plato, they might say that art is a scrub’s scrub. In that sense, a philosopher’s labor in life is far nobler than that of an artist’s, at least according to Plato.
A philosopher levels up from ho hum here to the eternal forms of the world of ideas. But an artist levels down to the shadow of a shadow of reality–sort of like when you buy a knock off of Mr. Pibb (if there is such a thing), which itself is a knock off of Coca-Cola. The too long didn’t read version is that philosophers are concerned with a more real version of our reality, whereas artists concern themselves with a mirror of our reality–which itself is just a mirror. If you’ve seen the movie Multiplicity (1996), basically Doug #1 is the world of the ideas, Dougs #2 and 3 are every day real world Dougs, and Doug #4 is art. Or that’s what Plato would say. Well, is Plato right?
Well, here’s a contrary perspective, in opposition to Plato’s. Art in a way can seem more real, more essential, more of an accurate insight about the human condition than the everyday factual reality around us. Sometimes art is a portal into the world of ideas. Sometimes it seems that a single work of art can evoke a sense of timelessness, a sense of universality that makes it stand the test of time. This timelessness of art adorns it with a sense of big “T” truth, a sense that what we’re watching, or reading, or viewing, is in its own way, more real, than what we’re living. Moreover, the everyday reality around us may seem transparent and factual, but in actuality it is constructed with the same shadows and lights, the same sleight of hand that art emerges out of. How do we even make sense of our own reality–the “real” world? We make sense of it through our own perception, and the operations of our own perception are not that much different from the way we perceive art. If you walk into a room with a dimmer, you can turn it up and down, and as the light in the room changes, your perception of reality changes as well–much like lights in a museum, theater, or a gallery.
Our memory is like art, with certain things emphasized and others de-emphasized, where emotion affects the narrative, and as the memories are replayed in our heads, they’re re-written, and retold. History, by the same logic, involves many of these narratological choices. And, now, let’s take another look at the world of ideas. A contrary perspective to Plato’s might be well expressed by a line from Carl Sagan, “It is said that men may not be the dreams of the gods, but rather that the gods are the dreams of men.” From this perspective, Plato’s reckoning of the cosmos becomes topsy-turvy. The world of ideas is an act of imagination, and our acts of imagination are more real than we are. Shadows become substance and vice-versa.
Mimesis is a window into The Mission becuase the film mirrors not just an historical moment in the eighteenth century, but the socio-political world of the 1980s. And, in my opinion, it mirrors the 21st Century world as well. It’s timeless in a sense. It gets at something that no one story does, and the fictionalized version of these historical events, arranges, eliminates, emphasizes, and inserts details to drive home the parts of the story that speak to the human condition. The story reflects not so much what we should be but what we are.
The film, directed by Roland Joffé and written by Robert Bolt, was the winner of the Palme d’Or and the academy award for Best Cinematography. The film recounts events surrounding the 1750 Treaty of Madrid whereby Spain ceded certain territories in South America to Portugal. One of the sticking points for the treaty are the fates of several Jesuit missions that involve indigenous peoples, most especially the Guaraní.
The Jesuits have sacrificed time and in some cases their lives to reaching out to the Guaraní and converting them, and the Guaraní have against their initial judgment begun to trust the Jesuits, changing their way of life, becoming a part of these Missions, acculturating themselves to a European and Catholic approach to life, and creating and distributing wealth (and crops) amongst themselves. (Note: my description here is as the film portrays, not as the historical record may otherwise indicate.)
Into this reality comes Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), who has the unenviable task of deciding the fate of these missions in relation to the Treaty of Madrid. The treaty would appear to give the Portuguese control of the missions, and the Portuguese colonists see them as a twofold economic threat. First, the missions provide sanctuary to the Guaraní, who could otherwise be enslaved by the plantation owners. Second, the missions are economically profitable, so much so that they cut into the profit and market share of the nearby Portuguese plantations. Even though the Portuguese state and the private special interests that influence the government would love to dissolve the Jesuits’ work, the Catholic order enjoys the immunity granted to it by Spain to operate free of molestation by slave traders, plantation owners, and other state or private self-interested parties. Cardinal Altamirano’s unenviable task is to decide, in the sense of being a “jurist,” whether there is cause to allow the missions to remain under State and Church protection, or whether the Portuguese, and by extension, the plantation owners can eradicate them, leaving the Guaraní to be hunted down and enslaved.
If Altamirano decides in favor of the Guaraní and the Jesuits, then the Portuguese and possibly other European states will retaliate against the Order, possibly destroying it. There’s recurrent concern throughout the film that the Jesuits are gaining too much power. So far as I can tell, the “power” that they’re gaining in the film is the power to insist that people matter more than profits, but that power can indeed be very threatening if one’s interests lie in thinking otherwise.
If Altamirano rules against the missions, then he will be indefensibly turning his back on the Guaraní, contradicting the tenets of Catholicism and of the Jesuit order. Altamirano states in the film he was once a Jesuit himself, and his demeanor comes off as Rick (Humphrey Bogart) from Casablanca (1942) or Senator Joseph Pain (Claude Rains) from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): brooding, world-weary, no longer an optimist and not happy but resigned to that fact. This dilemma of Altamirano’s is one that all of the characters are implicated in–some are confused, others act without conscience, others have their beliefs shaken, and still others feel betrayed. But all of the characters are forced to reckon with what happens when people and profits come head to head, and a confession of what one really values can no longer be deferred. Conscience-wise, it’s put up or shut up time.
That tension between state necessity and personal and religious ethics comes to the fore in the first interaction between Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a mercenary and slave trader, and Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), a Spanish Jesuit priest and leader of his Jesuit order. Gabriel has traveled up “above the falls,” a prepositional phrase that in 18th Century European colonial jargon–at least in this film–basically functions as shorthand for “out it in the boonies.” For instance, one might venture to this or that mission or meet the Guaraní in any such place, but behold, the law isn’t quite as firm, and one’s life isn’t quite as safe, and everyday experience is just a bit more mystical, wait for it, “above the falls.”
Above the falls, Father Gabriel is enjoying the company of the Guaraní and vice versa, when Mendoza begins capturing some of their tribe and killing others. There is frenetic movement, shots fired on both sides, and then Father Gabriel calls out from the trees in the jungle demanding to know who is there.
Gabriel: So you’re hunting above the falls now, Captain Mendoza? We’re building a mission here. We’re going to make Christians of these people.
Mendoza: If you have time.
Mendoza’s words presage the loss of this frontier–essentially that is what the falls are functioning as in this film. They also presage the terror and tragedy that Altamirano brings, regrettably with him. The forces of European economic imperialism are on their way, and religion is nice and all, but it’s the coin not the collar that rules the realm and moves the hearts of princes, even that of Rome’s, at least according to one of the motif’s in the film. We see that motif, for instance, in the following lines between the Cardinal and Don Cabeza, a plantation owner who is basically a metonymic representation of plutocratic wielders of capitalistic power, everywhere:
Altamirano: I suggest we advise your king to postpone the transfer of the mission territories until Portugal guarantees their survival. And I suggest we do this in the hope of heaven through the intercession of our merciful Redeemer.
Don Cabeza: In my opinion, the work of the missions is the work of the devil. They teach contempt for lawful profit, and they disobey the king’s authority.
Cabeza’s political philosophy may not be neoliberalism, but his language is in some ways evocative of that economic vision. Cabeza sees the Guaraní as a labor pool and the Jesuits’ evangelism as an unfair incursion on his access to that labor. Father Gabriel sees things differently:
Don Cabeza: Perhaps I’m missing something. I can’t see any difference between this plantation and my own?
Father Gabriel: That is the difference. This plantation is theirs.
There’s an obvious theme of differences in economic philosophy that runs through the film that this above dialogue gets at rather pointedly. In another scene, Altamirano asks a priest who is also a member of the Guaraní how the wealth amongst them is shared. When the priest says it is shared “equally” among the people of the mission, Altamirano responds, “ahh, yes, there is a French radical group that teaches that doctrine.” The priest responds, “Your Eminence, it was the doctrine of the early Christians.” In a review of the film in The New York Times, Joffe, the director speaks about some of the socio-political themes of the film:
That debate is very much alive today throughout South America. What kind of church should exist? What values should it stand for? What means should it use to achieve its goals? The question is being raised: can the church in Latin America be the same as the church in Poland, or in Nicaragua? If that debate is extinguished, the church dies.
What the church can be is at the heart of the decision that Altamirano has to make. And there’s a world of meaning in that word, can. Father Gabriel wants Altamirano to see what the Church can be, in terms of its transformative power, not just religiously and spiritually, but politically and socially for the Guaraní. Altamirano broods over what the Church can be within the political restraints of European politics.
Between these two characters, one is a Kantian (Father Gabriel) and one is a utilitarian (Altamirano). The Cardinal counsels the priest that there’s more at stake than he realizes: “I assure you, Father Gabriel, that the courts of Europe are a jungle in comparison with which your jungle here is a well kept garden.” Gabriel on the other hand, rigid in his idealism, asks if any of that “is to stand in our way.” The consummate if hesitant pragmatist Altamirano, knows that he cannot agree with the younger, idealistic priest. The writing is on the wall; one gets the sense that everyone knows what Altamirnao will do–must do, even–and there’s a fatalism to their process of seeking his judicial favor. But . . . still . . .they try.
There are so many characters worthy of description here, and it is an injustice not to mention them all, but one final character absolutely must be discussed in greater detail, Rodrigo Mendoza. Mendoza begins as a violent, petty, and selfish mercenary and slave trader. But after killing his brother, due to jealously and anger, he falls into deep despair. Gabriel, who until that time was an adversary he viewed in contempt, becomes his counselor and companion, and the father helps Mendoza seek redemption for his past life. Through a very affecting scene, one of the best in the film, Mendoza receives absolution from the Guaraní. De Niro plays this scene well, showing the literal and symbolic relief that comes from the weight that has been lifted from his back. Mendoza becomes a jesuit priest, though the robe does not always wear easy on him and his more martial sensibilities.
Mendoza is a useful foil for Gabriel, as well. De Niro doesn’t have much patience for the rules when the rules don’t seem to advance the right cause. He chafes at following orders, not out of insolence, but out of a different ethical sensibility than that of Gabriel. Gabriel believes in love, its transformative power to not just change hearts but change the material world. Mendoza has little patience for that approach. In this sense Mendoza’s character is an interesting mixture of Gabriel’s idealism and Altamirano’s pragmatism.
The film ultimately offers a rough and unforgiving justice on all three characters. None seem to have a grasp on the right approach, but the film offers no alternative. In some ways the film is deeply affecting in its optimism. It’s about characters, many of whom want to do the right thing. But these characters are stuck within a social structure that inexorably crushes their idealism, potential, and possibilities. And, yet, even in the face of most certain destruction, some of these characters, in their respective ways, continue to fight for their sense of right and their belief in what we all owe each other. Yes, I say that’s optimism.
The ending of the film has in my own opinion what is probably as close to the film’s moral that we get:
Hontar: “You had no alternative, your Eminence. We must work in the world. The world is thus.”
Altamirano: “No, Senor Hontar. Thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”
In other words, this world is what we make of it, and ultimately, the vicissitudes and exigencies of life are not sufficient excuses from acting ethically towards others. We are not simply acted upon by an indifferent world–though that might be true. We are agents, charged with a moral responsibility to act rather than be acted upon. Or at least, that’s how I interpret Altamirano’s final words. How fitting–and ironic–that the consummate pragmatist ends with a consideration of one’s immutable ethical responsibility to others.
Within each of these characters we see mirrors not just of their time and of the director’s time, but also of our own time. Altamirano is the bureaucrat who started his career for idealistic reasons, but had to slowly put those aside as he rose in rank and with more responsibility for affairs of the state. Now he’s tasked with finding a plausible reason within the confines of the law for doing something which must be done, irregardless of the law, or its practical and moral legitimacy. Gabriel is the idealist, who refuses to bend but knows in his refusal there lies his ultimate destruction. Mendoza is the pragmatist who realizes how wicked his past life has been and who can’t find a way to successfully use his more aggressive skill set to help the Guaraní but who dies trying. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which, if any, modern day public figures echo these descriptions.
- De Niro’s performance improves as the film continues. Up until the moment of his penance, his performance is almost horrifically bad. Then, in his powerful absolution scene, it changes markedly, and from that point forward his acting is very moving.
- Jeremy Irons has a very powerful performance as well. Seeing Irons as a loving priest is so against type it’s just . . . I don’t know, something.
- Liam Neeson is in this film, a young Liam Neeson, and I don’t know. No comment. I just don’t know.
- As everyone else says, the soundtrack is amazing. It’s a common reaction to the film, but that’s because it’s true.
- I think Altamirano’s character, whose visage begins the film with a sad stare amongst a black background, is really key to understanding this film. He begins the film, narrates the film, and ends the film, and it’s his decisions, that in a way express the tragedy of it all. Here’s a basically good person performing an ultimately wicked deed because he can’t bring himself to not do it–because he knows he’s expected to do it.
- The cinematography is amazing, and the scenery is breathtaking. Everyone talks about the waterfall. That’s because the waterfall is amazing.