In the South American jungles of 1758, the Spanish have been colonizing the natives. Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) has successfully built a mission that not only gives the people religious structure, but protects them from the slave hunters of Portugal. Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert de Niro) is a notorious slave trader who winds up in prison after killing his brother in a fight of passion. Father Gabriel goes to visit Rodrigo and offers him penance if he comes to serve in his mission. Eventually, Rodrigo converts and begins studying to become a Jesuit priest. When Spain decides to sell the colony back to Portugal, this mission will be overrun and the people killed or sold as slaves. The priests are ordered not to retaliate, but Rodrigo rallies the natives to protect what is theirs while Father Gabriel tries to simply carry on his peaceful mission while death and destruction happen all around him.
While The Mission won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival, it only won one if its seven Oscar nominations. The film took award for Best Cinematography easily with all its beautiful shots of the natural landscape. There are wonderfully composed shots of water running down the steep cliffs, mist rising up from the pools below and the daring men scaling the cliffs against the rushing water. This seems like the only path to the mission, but once one makes up that cliff, the jungle is just as beautiful and lush as the water.
One of the most revealing scenes about Rodrigo is when Father Gabriel gives him an odd sort of penance for killing his brother. As they journey through the jungle and up these cliffs, Rodrigo has a heavy net full of pieces of armor tied to him, like a makeshift ball and chain. Rodrigo takes this burden seriously and even after Fielding (Liam Neeson) cuts it off of him, he ties it back on. Even when he’s hanging on the side of a cliff with this ball about to bring him down to the rocks below, Rodrigo keeps it attached. Fielding asks Gabriel how long Rodrigo must carry the stupid thing and Gabriel simply responds, “God knows.” After putting himself through that sort of torture and danger, it’s not surprising that he willingly becomes a priest.
The Mission seems to be one of those films that puts more meaning and untold story into its images. Near the beginning we see natives put a man on a cross and send him floating down the river. The image of a cross being lost into the mist of the falls is startling, beautiful and so thought provoking, yet we are never explicitly told who was on the cross or why. The story of betrayal by the Spanish, the ones who came to convert and protect these people is only one layer of the film. What you see and how your mind can interpret it is a much richer layer.
“Your Holiness, a surgeon to save the body must often hack off a limb. But in truth nothing could prepare me for the beauty and the power of the limb that I had come here to sever.”