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The Mission

December 1, 2007

One of the most shameful episodes in the history of mankind, has been the slaughter and genocide of the indigeneous Indian population and native civilizations in South and Central America, or the region which we call as Latin America, by Spain and Portugal, who decided to civilize that corner of the World. Pretty much ironic, consider that the civilizations like the Aztecs, Incas, Mayas were far more advanced and far more civilized than the backward, feudal societies of Spain and Portgual. And yeah while Spain and Portugal might not have indulged in head hunting and the like, their instruments of torture were equally brutal. And on top of it, a corrupt clergy, aristocracy, and long suffering masses, i guess this was the kind of civilization they wanted to export. Civilizing the natives was nothing but a euphemism for the worst form of exploitation, as can be seen in Francisco Pizzaro’s loot of the Inca treasures or the whole sale destruction of the Aztec, Maya civilizations. And the worst part is that today neither Spain nor Portugal have shown any remorse for their actions, and neither have they been held accountable for their actions.

In 1750, Spain and Portugal, signed the Treaty of Madrid, which simply gave these countries the rights to decide, which more parts of South America they could take for their loot, and how many more indigenous Indians, would be captured to work as slaves. It was around this time that many Jesuit priests set up their Missions in South America, called as Jesuit Missions. These were independent of the Spanish Government, and while they did indulge in conversions to Christianity, they never saw the tribes as savage and uncivilized, and rendered true, selfless service to them, in the spirit of God. This was not to the liking of the Spanish-Portugese governments, who believed they had a birthright to butcher helpless Indian tribes, in the name of civilization or even worse carry them off as slaves. The 1986 Roland Joffe movie The Mission, starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons is a movie on this backdrop.

The movie revolves around a Spanish Jesuit priest Father Gabriel( Jeremy Irons) who along with another Jesuit priest Fielding( Liam Neeson) sets up a Christian mission in the jungles of Brazil, amongst the natives of the Guarani tribe. Gabriel is a true servant of God, who believes in spreading love and peace, and he works along with the tribals, treating them, caring for them. He sees them as human beings, not as savages or uncivilized, and the tribals in turn respect him and revere him.

Rodrigo Mendoza( Robert De Niro), a former Portugese mercenary and slave trader, is seeking redemption, after he has killed his brother( Aidan Quinn) in a sword duel, when he finds him in an affair with his wife. He joins the mission, as a place where he seeks sanctuary, and also a place where he can find redemption for his past sins. The mission was the same place, where Rodrigo had earlier enslaved, many members of the Guarani tribe to work as slave trade for the Portugese.

Rodrigo later converts into a Jesuit priest and the Guarani accept him also, though he had earlier enslaved many of their own people. Under the Treaty of Madrid, Spain hands over the mission to the Portugese, which is akin to handing over a sheep to a pack of wolves. The Portugese colonials were notorious for their bloodthirsty ways, and indulged in slave trade also. The Portugese now want to enslave the Guarani tribe under the new powers granted to them by the treaty, and The Vatican represented by Papal emissary Altamirano, asks them to withdraw their mission from that area. Gabriel wants to protect the mission using non violent means, and passive resistance, while Mendoza uses his military background and armed force to stop the action. Eventually a combined Spanish-Portugese force attack the mission, seeing the natives way of life as threatening.

Will Gabriel and Mendoza be able to thwart the attack against the huge Spanish-Portugese army, and save the natives? Whose way prevails in the end, Gabriel’s non violent , passive resistance or Mendoza’s armed defence? Does Mendoza find the redemption he has been seeking all his life? Do watch this movie to find out.

Right from the starting scene, where the dead body of a Christian missionary, floats down the Igassu Falls, to the climax scene, Mission is a movie that simply spells classic. Like Scarface, this movie has never been a critics favorite, and it shows that movie critics can be wrong some times. This is one of the finest, most moving, most memorable pieces of cinema, you are going to see in a long long time. The movie has some spectacular shots of the Igassu falls in Brazil,which serves as the backdrop for the movie.

The opening scene itself, where we see a Christian missionary’s body floating down the river, and then falling over, the falls, as the title credits are shown is brilliantly shot. Another great scene in the movie is when Robert De Niro’s character, Mendoza, has to drag up a heavy plate of armor along the cliff, as an atonement for his previous sins. As he comes up the cliff, he falls to the ground weeping, looking at the natives. These were the people whom he had previously enslaved, and treated brutally.But yet they hold no malice towards him, and when he realizes that they accept him inspite of his sins, he breaks down, and that is when Father Gabriel comes and holds him. A brilliant way of depicting how forgiveness can wash away the past sins of a person. One of the most moving scenes for sure.

Also the scene where Father Gabriel climbs up the cliffs near the Igassu falls, to reach the mission, is wonderfully shot. Also the climax scene showing the massacre of the Indian tribes is harrowingly shot. If this is what Spain and Portugal meant by bringing civilization, the world was better off without it. Also one major issue i had with this movie is that at the end of it all, it still ends up perpetuating the “noble white man who civilized the savage tribes and saved them” stereotype, by focussing exclusively on the characters of Mendonza and Gabriel. We really do not see the perspective of the Indian tribes, and they are just shown as poor, naive people, who needed to be protected from other people. For a movie that seeks to depict the exploitation of Indian tribes, the characters of the native Indians remain in the background, and that is quite a major drawback.

But still this is a movie worth watching for some solid performances. Jeremy Irons, quite often an underrated actor, is brilliant as the pacifist Father Gabriel, giving a performance that combinese sensitivity and emotional intensity wonderfully together. Robert De Niro gives another excellent performance as usual, as the reformed sinner Mendonza,trying to seek redemption, especially in that scene, when he breaks down after undergoing his redemption. Both Irons and De Niro, take acting to a new high in that scene. Liam Neeson, as Father Flinder, does an excellent job too, this was in his pre Schindler List days. And also a wonderful background score by Ennio Morricone, which stays with you even after the movie is over. So my reccomendation, go see this movie, it is just not to be missed at any cost.

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