It is unfortunate that the very titles of some works of art discourage a certain segment of the population from viewing them, and another, equally regrettable segment from understanding what on earth or beyond they could be about. Mention the words "organized religion" to these modern know-it-all skeptics – they know who they are because they know absolutely everything – and you will not fail to notice a sarcastic snicker looming on their thin lips. They will use terms such as voodoo, witchcraft, superstition, myth, and, most recently, opiate (hilariously rendered as "opium" by some of the more brilliant among them); they will claim that the Church and other conduits of spiritualism have killed so many for nothing, or for nothing more than to enslave and intimidate the survivors; they will claim that all this is a monumental sham for the sake of power; and if that argument doesn't hold water, they will assert that religion is the refuge of the poor, the cold, the downtrodden, to give them hope when life mocks them cruelly. While all these notions are logical to someone of no imagination, principles or foresight, they are quaintly and wholly illogical in another, more important way. That we may not be immortal is an acceptable premise, never mind the intuition in so many of us that instructs us otherwise; but what is not acceptable is the fallacy that should we all be nothing but evolved amoebae, we would then have to adhere to manmade law. True, there are consequences for such infringements. Yet there is no logical justification for refraining from committing a crime apart from conscience, and if our consciences are biochemical figments of our imagination, then I should do well to rob and kill anyone whose loss is my gain. That is, by the way, the law of the jungle whence we emerged. And the jungle of this film will not soon be forgotten.
Our story is simple: we are in the 1750s amidst what certain academics believe to be some of the greatest missionary activity in the history of Catholic Church. The story, which makes perfect sense from first to last, lacks only the coherence of fiction – which is, in fact, its strongest quality. In the beginning a man is pushed down a stream on a cross, completely at the whims of nature, of God himself who will do with him what He will. As his body, still alive, wends its way through the rapids, we know that he will cascade over an endless cliff of water and from this perch we shall see the establishment of something much greater and higher. The man turns out to be a Jesuit priest, and the waterfall comes under the aegis of these people in the jungles of Paraguay. Despite this ominous introduction, we sense no evil, and shortly thereafter a replacement Jesuit is found in Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) who has on his side a consort of brothers and irrefragable faith. Gabriel climbs – slowly and with the lushest of backgrounds – the mountain from which his Jesuit colleague just tumbled, and he clambers up with one end in mind: the reduction must be reestablished for the good of the Guaraní people, whom he comes to adore, and, ultimately for the good of the brothers as well. Barefoot and exhausted, he gains the summit, rests upon a rock, and there takes out a long thin package. He does not unravel food or a weapon, man's two crutches, but a flute. His music attracts the natives, who initially act as we might expect them to act, and then assume a quiet dignity and gentleness of movement that do not distinguish them from their European brethren. Soon Father Gabriel has a new home, and the Jesuit reduction is on track to convert more souls to the way of the Lamb.
Is this imperialism? Most certainly. But it is imperialism performed in such an innocuous manner that we wonder who is converting whom. Peace between peoples of astonishingly divergent origin who can coexist and even thrive together should always be lauded. So it is hardly surprising when Gabriel is summoned to tend to Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert de Niro), an incarcerated slave trader and mercenary who exemplifies what schoolchildren learn about Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors and their scions. His world is the opposite of that of the monks: he enjoys wine, women, luxury and servants; he rides on steeds that would terrify anything on two legs; and he wears a countenance that suggests he usually gets what he wants. There is one exception to that rule, a young woman called Carlotta, who ends up madly in love with Mendoza's brother Felipe (an emaciated Aidan Quinn). One evil eve after being verbally jilted by Carlotta, Mendoza finds the two in bed and Felipe falls into the despicable trap of duelling a man who has neither qualms nor rules for meting out vengeance. The brothers clash, the inevitable occurs, and the next time we see the normally slick-haired and stylish Mendoza is as a ragamuffin prisoner sitting on some hay. "He has not seen anyone in six months," Gabriel is warned by another priest, "I think he wants to die." But Gabriel has seen many repulsive sinners in his life, and he asks unhesitatingly whether this penance is remorse, to which Mendoza replies that "there is no penance hard enough for me." They talk further, decide on a plan for the expiation of his horrible crime (contained in part within a magnificent scene by that same waterfall), and Mendoza sheds his previous titles and becomes, after reading chapter thirteen of this epistle, a brother in the Jesuit order.
The rest of the film is devoted to a debate that has many faces. On one side, we see the hypocritical exploitation and manoeuvring of both the Spanish and Portuguese representatives, men long since blinded by glitz and greed; on the other side, the Jesuits and their hardscrabble but happy existence far from the hum of men. But there is a third side, a great arbiter and Church dignitary called Altamirano, whose name could connote looking above or high or, in his case, not looking at all. Ultimately it is he who will decide the fate of the Guaraní; whether their sanctioned murder of each couple's third child is truly to facilitate parents' flight from European oppressors; whether their sweetest tones are merely winds channeled through a beast; and whether missions and missionaries are as important as the central and often compromising tenets of Church authority. An unorganized and beautiful film that initially promises to be fast-paced, slows down in the middle to the tempo of a stage play, then picks up at the end in a most menacing fashion, The Mission deservingly boasts one of the most legendary soundtracks in recent cinematic history. And it is the bedlam of the conflict's resolution and the unclear yet enthralling path it takes to that bedlam that have been alternatively praised and chided. But what is war if not chaos? And what is love if not submission? Questions asked, answered with few words, and best explained by the very final shot which could represent so many of us just looking in the mirror. Some of us, however, may gaze forever at a web of mirrors and see nothing at all.