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Film / The Mission

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"Your Holiness, I write to you in this year of Our Lord 1758 from the southern continent of the Americas, from the town of Asunción, in the Province of La Plata, two weeks march from the great mission of San Miguel. These missions have provided a refuge for the Indians against the worst depredations of the settlers and have earned much resentment because of it. The noble souls of these Indians incline towards music. Indeed, many a violin played in the academies of Rome itself has been made by their nimble and gifted hands. It was from these missions the Jesuit fathers carried the word of God to the high and undiscovered plateau to those Indians still existing in their natural state, and received in return martyrdom."
Cardinal Altamirano

The Mission is a 1986 British drama film written by Robert Bolt, directed by Roland Joffé, with music by Ennio Morricone, and starring Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, and Cherie Lunghi.

Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Irons) goes to South America for missionary work, hoping to convert some natives to Christianity. He builds a mission (hence the name of the movie), and is joined by Rodrigo Mendoza (De Niro), a former slave trader seeking redemption.

When the Spanish government sells the territory to Portugal, the Portuguese government wants to capture the natives for slave labor. Mendoza and Gabriel oppose this and resolve to defend the mission.

The movie was mostly critically acclaimed upon release. It was nominated for seven Academy awards, including Best Picture, and it ended up winning Best Cinematography. Additionally, it won the 1986 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie is included among the 45 films in the official Vatican film list, in the Religion section.

Not to be confused for the English Post-Punk band (see the Music tab for them). Or the Hong Kong movie from 1999.

This film provides examples of the following:

  • Actual Pacifist: Father Gabriel refuses to fight back physically against the Portuguese, unlike Mendoza.
  • Against My Religion: Father Gabriel refuses to take arms against the Portuguese because Jesuits are supposed to act with love, not might. Mendoza thinks otherwise.
  • All for Nothing: In less than 20 years, Jesuits have been suppressed, making the sacrifice of the handful of missions in the Paraguay meaningless. In the book, Altamirano is tormented by this to the end of his days.
  • All There in the Manual: The script only adapts the second half of the novel, thus numerous things are completely lost in the film. Most notably, the entire backstory of Mendoza is omitted, leaving only the fated duel with his own brother and thus stripping the movie out of the entire emotional impact of that moment.
  • Arc Symbol: Violins are associated with the Guarani. They're stated and shown multiple times to be musically-inclined people, and they're often shown making or holding violins.
  • The Atoner: Mendoza. He killed his younger brother in a fit of jealousy for sleeping and getting infatuated with his bride, and gets depressed. As a form of penitence, Mendoza packs a bag of armor and weapons, symbolizing his guilt, and climbs to get to father Gabriel's mission, who proposed him to do so. When he finally arrives, a Guaraní man frees him from the load and Mendoza starts to shed tears, finally having his pardon over his crime.
  • Badass Pacifist: Father Gabriel calmly conducts Mass and approaches the Portuguese troops (and the dying Mendoza) without even flinching as musket balls and flaming arrows fly past him and eventually kill him. In one of the early scenes of the film, he risks his life by climbing a treacherous waterfall and proselytizing to a tribe of Indians who had just days earlier murdered one of his fellow priests by crucifying him and sending him over a waterfall.
  • Badass Preacher: All the Jesuits, who don't hesitate to put their lives on the line for their goals and the mission. This also applies to Mendoza once he joins the order.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Hontar and Cabeza conquer the Guaraní territories for the Crowns of Spain and Portugal at a very high cost, much to Altamirano's horror.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Cabeza, the hot blooded and bald Spaniard, and Hontar, the cold and calculating Portuguese, who represent to interests of their crown countries in the Guaraní territories.
  • Book Ends: The film starts with Altamirano staring at the audience as he is writing the letter for His Holiness and the post-credits scene has him staring again at the audience as soon as he finishes his letter.
  • Condescending Compassion: The Jesuits have this towards the Guarani. Sure, they want to help them, but their main goal is converting them to Christianity regardless of what they believed before, and they only help them to the extent the Guarani are still under colonial power rather than keep any sort of independence.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The priest who attempted to minister to the Guarani before Father Gabriel was crucified on two logs and set adrift (while still alive) down river rapids and a waterfall.
  • Defector from Decadence: Inverted with Cardinal Altamirano. He used to be a Jesuit, but now has left that frugal way of life behind and embraced the loftier, luxurious lifestyle of a cardinal.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Mendoza is quick to accuse people of laughing at him in his moments of weakness, like when he first meets Father Gabriel during his self-imposed exile after killing his brother.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: The Jesuits and the Guarani, in the end.
  • Downer Ending: Gabriel, Mendoza, Fielding, and most of the Guaraní are killed by the Portuguese strike force. However, the ending quote suggests all is not lost.
    "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." - John 1:5
  • Egocentrically Religious: Don Cabezas in particular. He tries to justify the slave trade and the subjugation of the Guarani, from which he is directly profitting, as correct according to Christian morality, even going so far as to call missions the devil's work.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • Everyone finds Rodrigo's way of making a living as a slaver to be vile, one way or another. Even including his business partners, who in turn find his excessive brutality to be a problem.
    • The Jesuits, the "God's soldiers", would rather give up their vows of obedience, than willingly agree to leave the Guarani to be conquered and enslaved.
    • Once reaching the mission and facing the prospect of having to slaughter innocent people - in the middle of a mass, no less - the soldiers get cold-feet about the whole prospect.
  • Excellent Judge of Character: A minor character from the book, the fencing teacher Rodrigo hires to learn how to fight, quickly reads through the young man after a single duel. He then tactfully apologises and gives Mendoza his money back, explaining he will not train a murderer after witnessing his ferocity in combat.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Hontar, the Portuguese governor. Unlike the loud, perpetually angry, and openly bigoted Spanish governor Cabeza, Hontar is unfailingly polite and always states his position in the most quiet, refined, and reasonable-sounding way. However, he's just as committed to using the most brutal methods possible to achieve his aims as Cabeza.
  • Flynning: Averted in the duel between Rodrigo and his brother, which lasts only a few seconds, and portrays real techniques in rapier fencing (though they use smallswords) like using a knife (usually it was a dagger) in the left hand.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Cardinal Altamirano makes the decision he does in order to prevent the suppression of the Society of Jesus. Historically, the Jesuits were suppressed anyway just a few years later.
  • Going Native: Rodrigo Mendoza starts out as a slave trader and mercenary who only sees the Guarani as merchandise. Then he meets Father Gabriel, gets to know and live among the Guarani in the mission, and ends up joining the Jesuits as another brother.
  • Good Shepherd: Father Gabriel is about as saintly as they come.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Rodrigo Mendoza is a slaver who undergoes penance and eventually dies protecting those he had hurt in the past.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: After Father Fielding is shot, the two Guarani on his canoe are pursued by the Portuguese troops. They intentionally take a route that sends both the Portuguese and them to their deaths over the waterfall.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The Jesuits. In real life, most Jesuits gave up control of the missions to the Portuguese crown without a fight, though many still remained in the missions with the Guarani while they were attacked. The Guarani Revolts were lead by the Guarani themselves, not organized by the Jesuits, and many Guarani initially refused to live in the missions or escaped them first chance they got. The Jesuits also controlled the Guarani's finances; their earnings were not equally distributed like in the film (and that unfairness is a minor plot-point in the book, portraying the missions as a lesser evil, rather than a safe haven).
  • Hope Spot:
    • The first battles between the Portuguese troops and the Indians and priests defending the mission end favorably for the latter, until it becomes apparent that with the sheer number of Portuguese troops and their superior firepower, the eventual outcome is inevitable.
    • In the final battle scene, some of the Portuguese troops stop and make the sign of the cross out of respect for Mass being held at the mission chapel, suggesting they might lay down their arms. In fact, enough of them are willing to carry out their orders to destroy the church and kill its worshippers, and moreover, the Portuguese also have Indian mercenaries on their side who probably never converted to Christianity and thus had no qualms about killing a priest and his flock during Mass.
  • I Choose to Stay: The Jesuits decide to stay and fight alongside the Guarani to keep the Portuguese away from the mission.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Cabeza and Hontar, the Spanish and Portuguese governors, try to justify their actions this way. Cardinal Altamirano (who is clearly guilt ridden after condemning the missionaries) doesn't buy it.
  • Inevitable Waterfall: The most famous shot from the movie is of a priest being tied to a cross and being sent downriver to Iguazu Falls. It's been also used as an ad poster.
    • Additionally, following the death of Father Fielding, the Indians in his canoe sacrifice themselves by leading pursuing Portuguese troops down rapids towards a waterfall and their deaths.
  • Irish Priest: Father Gabriel is a missionary from Ireland.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: In the book, Rodrigo is trained by a fencing teacher. During their initial sparring to test how much the young man already can do, the teacher easily goes through his parry and inflicts a wound... to which Rodrigo doesn't react and continues with his attacks. He continues to ignore the wound even once the duel is over, prompting the fencing teacher to realisation he's training a future murderer and calling the deal off.
  • The Missionary: Just as the title implies, the film is about a missionary. More specifically, a Jesuit evangelizing 18th-century South America.
  • Mook Lieutenant: The unnamed Spanish and Portuguese officers. Symbols of their faceless masters back in Spain and Portugal.
    (The Portugese soldiers are having second thoughts about shooting unarmed men, women, and children, especially as they can hear Mass being performed in the village they are about to storm)
    Soldier: None of us wants to do this...
    Portuguese Officer: I'm not interested. Get in position.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Cardinal Altamirano's realization that his orders to dissolve the Jesuit mission led to a full-out massacre, including that of unarmed women and children.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Only Robert de Niro sounds vaguely Spaniard. Everyone else sounds either American or British. Justified in Father Gabriel and John's cases, as they're supposed to be Irish.
  • Offing the Offspring: The Guarani kill their young, which the Spanish and Portuguese invaders find monstrous. Father Gabriel explains that they only have to resort to that because they can only carry one child apiece while they flee from the same invaders that now call the Guarani animals. This was probably not the case in Real Life, as the Guarani prided themselves in having large families.
  • Ordered Apology: Rodrigo is ordered to deliver an apology to Governor Cabeza by his Jesuit brothers after publicly calling him out on his lies. He does so, but it's executed with such over-the-top humility that it's clear Rodrigo is just taking the piss. Cabeza grudgingly accepts the "apology."
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The movie skips the first half of the book, which contains backstory for both Rodrigo and Gabriel. This unfortunately removes most of the emotional impact from the original story, especially the implied reasons why someone like Mendoza broke down after killing his brother Felipe. But if all of that had been kept, the movie would have been at least another 60 minutes longer, bloating it to 3 hours, if not more.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: Rodrigo used to be just a fisherman's son back in Spain and a very simple-minded boy, when suddenly he was promoted to head of his family. The first third of the novel covers his slow, but gradual moral descent, until everyone, including Mendoza himself, considers him to be a heartless monster, driven purely by greed.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Most of the main characters are either priests or convert at some point, and often their faith leads to moments of badassery, such as Mendoza climbing up a mountain with a coffin full of armor and weapons tied to him.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: When Gabriel first meets Mendoza in a monastery, six months after Rodrigo killed his brother and sequestered himself out of guilt, Mendoza accuses him of laughing at him. Gabriel confirms this and calls him pitiful for hiding away instead of trying to do something as penance for his crime. His speech opens Mendoza's eyes, and he ends up accepting Gabriel's invitation to go to the San Carlos mission.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Mendoza's ultimate fate.
  • Redemption Quest: Mendoza starts one after meeting Father Gabriel.
  • Retired Monster: Rodrigo Mendoza was one of the most prominent and ruthless slave catchers in the area, well-known for his brutality and lack of compassion to just about anyone. He eventually sides with and defends the very people he was tormenting and enslaving. It is especially prominent in the original novel, where his backstory takes roughtly half the text, covering in detail his increasingly inhumane actions.
  • Scenery Porn: The winner of the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1987, no less! Iguazu Falls, the mission of San Miguel... All beautifully shot in its magnificency and colors. As told by Altamirano in his narration, he was so truly astonished by its beauty and sad that he compared the destruction of the mission of San Miguel with a surgeon cutting off an important limb.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: A triumphant choral piece (called "Vita Nostra" in the soundtrack) plays when the Guarani are building their church - and when they attack the Portuguese at the end despite certain to lose. Or perhaps not dissonant since they're Doomed Moral Victors.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: The righteousness of their cause, Mendoza's great skill and the bravery of the Guarani and many of the younger Jesuits prove to be no match against the vastly superior manpower and firepower of the Portuguese troops. This is particularly surprising in the novel, when they are initially winning and having clear upper hand... and then just more soldiers show up. And more. And more.
  • Tin Man: Rodrigo, especially in the novel. He spends most of his youth and adulthood doing progressively worse and worse deeds, eventually repressing his emotions and guilt to the point where everyone is convinced such a monster as him simply can't have feelings. Then he finds the only woman capable of understanding and defrosting him... and we all know how it ended.
  • Title Drop: The movie is about a Jesuit mission, so this is a given.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: The Cardinal has a choice between pulling support for the Guaraní, dooming them, or letting the Catholic Church be condemned. He chooses the former. Also counts as a Sadistic Choice; whatever the Cardinal decides, one group is going to end up being persecuted; the natives, or the Jesuits.
  • Tragic Monster: Mendoza, especially in the novel. At the start, he's the older of two orphaned brothers and dedicates his own life to provide for Felipe's well-being and education. Which includes travelling to America as an indentured servant, getting employed as a mercenary and eventually starting to hunt for slaves, culminating in becoming an infamous slaver well-known for his brutality and the utmost refusal to ever back off. Then he ends up killing his own brother in a fit of jealousy and it's hard not to weep with him over the fact.
  • Turbulent Priest: The Jesuits, especially Mendoza. Once it's clear the Portuguese are coming for the missions regardless of Cardinal Altamirano's personal feelings on the matter, Fathers John, Ignacio and Rodrigo give up their vows of obedience and join the Guarani in their revolt against the invaders. While Father Gabriel is against their methods, he still defies the Portuguese by staying with the Guarani during the attack on the mission, calmly conducting mass while they shoot the buildings and set everything on fire.
  • Who Dares?: Don Cabeza doesn't take kindly to Mendoza calling him out on his lies:
    Cabeza: I cannot and will not accept a challenge from a priest! His cloth protects him!
    Mendoza: My cloth protects you!