In researching this article, I was surprised at how few movies there actually were on the subject of colonialism. Even the American Revolution has rarely been shown on screen, and most of what I could find was old John Wayne movies from the 1950's which likely glorified colonialism and the slaughter of Native Americans. But of the few that have been made, there is one that stands out. Roland Joffé's the mission is on the surface a critique of Spanish and Portugese Imperialism, with a particular emphasis on the consequences of the Treaty of Madrid in 1750.
It is also a story about many other things: political intrigue, humanity, indifference, racism, redemption, the complex politics and agendas that allow atrocities to happen, the futility of religion, the futility of war, the cost of human greed, and the cost of human kindness. It is a complex film on many levels, with so many themes to explore that go beyond the its famous waterfall sequences. It is a story about moral uncertainty, and asks how far one is willing to go for what they believe. From the very beginning of the film, it is a story of hope and hopelessness, and ultimately a question of whether love truly conquers all.
The film opens with a framing device, Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McNally) dictating a letter to the King of Spain in which he relates the events depicted in the film. This one sequence of narration quickly sets up everything that is to follow. We are introduced to the three main parties who come into conflict: the Catholic Church, the Spanish, and the Portuguese. All three have their own agendas, with a concern for power and control, and none are ideal. Altamirano describes the impact the Church has had on the local population, making the statement that they are human beings and emphasizing it through a statement that they have displayed a passion for music.
This brief statement sets up one of the most important motifs in the film; the association of music with compassion. Whether it is through the diegesis or through Ennio Morricone's remarkable score, the film constantly uses music as a metaphor for humanity, and draws a particular association with the Indigenous people. When the narrative begins, we see a Priest tied to a cross by the local natives and sent over a waterfall, likely because they were not happy about a man they never saw before trying to force his religious beliefs on them.
But when Gabriel first climbs the waterfall, it is playing his oboe that draws their attention and begins to earn their respect (one of the natives breaks it, but another man immediately recovers the pieces and seems to apologize). Later on, it is the presentation of a child's singing that Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) uses in a (failed) effort to convince Spanish governor Don Cabeza (Chuck Low) that the natives are human. At the very end, in a desperate effort to uphold his beliefs, Gabriel leads a choir towards the attacking Portuguese army.
It is also in this first act, when Gabriel climbs a waterfall (something that will become a recurring motif throughout) and begins constructing his mission, that we are introduced to the film's other main character, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro). When he is first seen, he is (not unjustifiably) treated as someone to be despised. A first time viewer could easily be forgiven for being taken off-guard by the character arc he eventually faces. Mendoza's first scene depicts him capturing and trapping natives with the intent of selling them as slaves, much to Gabriel's anger.
He then travels to a Spanish Colony where he sells his kidnapped slaves to Cabeza for money, an act which nobody seems to question, but there are more layers beginning to emerge as learn more about his life. It turns out Mendoza is more complex than he initially appears. We see him meeting with his brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn), with whom he appears to be very close, It is only through a crime of passion, and with the death of a white man, that Mendoza is able to realize the kind of man he has been. It is here that he once again meets Gabriel, and begins to turn himself around. Mendoza begins his character arc only facing the guilt of his brother's death, but this will set in motion a complex arc that ultimately sees a man we expected to despise but come to respect.
Mendoza agrees to join Gabriel, and undergoes a "penance" which makes for one of the film's most famous sequences. The guilt that Mendoza feels is symbolized through his climb up the waterfall, while tied to a net filled with armor, swords, weapons, and other heavy objects that serve as reminders of his former life. Accepting his own guilt proves to be very difficult, just as the challenge he faces on the waterfall. On several occasions, Gabriel is approached by Father John Fielding (Liam Neeson) who tries to have the net removed, but Gabriel states that it can only happen when Mendoza is ready. He even has one opportunity to lose the net, when it gets caught and Fielding cuts the rope, but Mendoza only climbs back down and reattaches himself.
It is only at the top that Mendoza is finally released, but ironically is the way it presents itself. Mendoza's freedom comes not from Gabriel or through any sense of faith, but from the very people he once enslaved. Upon reaching the end of the climb, one of the natives cuts the rope and throws the net over a waterfall. This small act marks the beginning of Mendoza's redemption. The act of tossing the net into the water below represents his overcoming his guilt. Not forgetting it, what has happened happened (and it later resurfaces when a native boy recovers Mendoza's sword, presumably from the net) but being able to recognize that he can still change. In the end, it never is any sense of religious faith that changes Mendoza, but his experiences living among the natives. Even when Mendoza becomes a Jesuit himself, he never fits in perfectly, often disagreeing with Gabriel and later finding it necessary to resign.
Unfortunately, there are other problems going on. We also see the complex politics that have been going on. There are three parties: the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Catholic Church, all under pressure from political agendas enforced in Europe. The Portuguese are interested in expanding their territory, and the Spanish are interested in profit. No consideration is made toward the natives who live in the area. If anything, there seems to be a strong interest in taking them as slaves, as both Portugal and Spain have no problem with owning slaves (the only difference being that one country does it openly while the other denies it).
It is here that the themes of humanity really start to present themselves. Gabriel and his fellow Jesuits are called to a court where Altamirano is forced to represent the Church, with Cabeza serving to represent the political and financial interests of Spain and Portugal. He is shown to be ruthless and biased in his efforts, with only profit as a major concern. When Gabriel tries to use a child's singing as proof of the natives' humanity, Cabeza dismisses it, calling him "a child of the jungle. Nothing more." He speaks of nothing but subduing the natives. His arguments range from partial information to outright lying, and ultimately uses Mendoza's attempt to call him out as proof that the Jesuits are disorganized and incompetent.
This conflict eventually builds to the film's final act, when Altamiro is faced with the decision to close the missions in order to show the Church's authority. In doing so, he leaves the natives confused, and forces the Jesuits to choose between their loyalty to the Church and to the natives. It is here that Mendoza makes the difficult choice to take up arms, one motivated ironically by the recovery of his sword- a reminder of his previous life and the instrument which led to his brother's death, now being used to defend the very people he used to enslave.
At the moment, it is becoming more difficult to know the right course of action. Even Gabriel questions it with one line: "if might is right, then love has no place in this world." Gabriel tries to stick to his belief in peace, while the others agree to fight. As we see, several missions are being attacked by the Portuguese, probably taking the natives as slaves and forcing mothers away from their children. It is a desperate fight. The natives are hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. Mendoza's tricks are a long shot at best. But even attempting to fight is better than surrendering.
When the army attacks, the Priests and Natives manage to put up a fight, but in the end they fail. It is here that Mendoza completes his character arc by dying for the same people he used to enslave, and ironically due to an act of kindness. The others are all killed. But in the end, what really has been accomplished? The Mission is destroyed, and the priests are all dead, but the Portuguese soldiers also faced heavy losses. What is left for the victors but ruins and the memories of those lost.
Cabeza seems to think it was a success. When asked if the massacre was necessary, he claims it was for a "legitimate cause." Cabeza is the only one who got anything out of this. A whole bunch of people were killed for one already rich plantation owner who found the shifting boundaries profitable. It is yet another instance of the unfortunate American tradition of killing entire groups of people to make a quick buck (something that had already occurred with explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortez; and would later show up again in the American Indian Wars). With little consideration for the native population.
In the end, the Church is only comparatively better than the other parties involved, but even it is far from a perfect solution to the problem. While Altamirano tries to find a reasonable solution and questions the ethics of his actions, he is ultimately pressured by other political powers to make a decision that supports the colonists. The mission is referred to several times as a "sanctuary..." specifically one which allows the indigenous population freedom from slave traders, but even this is not a perfect solution. The mission was only able to remain running under Spanish rule, and now that the Portuguese have taken over there is no legal means of protecting it.
The final moments of the film present an emotional reminder of everything that has happened. In this last scene, we see a handful of natives, children who have managed to survive the massacre and find themselves scavenging what is left. All that remains of what was once they had called home is a handful of broken objects left in the river. In keeping of their association with music, one of the children is seen taking a broken violin. Although its strings are not properly attached, he takes it as if it were a priceless treasure. The children climb into a canoe, trying to find a new place to call home and facing an uncertain future in the wake of colonial oppression.