Film Review: ‘The Mission’


‘The Mission’, directed by Roland Joffé (1986)

During the first wave of European colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Christian missionaries were often used as the advance guard of conquering armies. They first tried to cow the natives with religion and the bible and, if that didn’t work, they sent in the guns to coerce them into submitting to their new European masters.

The Mission is set during the time of the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of South America. It is about a group of Jesuits who establish missions in the South American jungle, win the trust of the local Indian population only to see them massacred by the advancing troops as a result of a deal between Spain and Portugal to parcel up the land between them. The film’s intention is not to show the role that missionaries played in the conquest of South America –  the Jesuits are presented as being on the side of the Indians. In fact the film’s story-line is weak; it is little more than a vehicle for the stars –  Jeremy Irons who plays the dedicated Jesuit father and Robert de Niro as a repentant mercenary slave-trader turned Jesuit – and for some truly magnificent camera work. The plot is pathetic but the cinematography is fantastic. It is worth going to see the film for the magnificent pictures of waterfalls, rivers and jungles. But don’t get taken in by the sentimental hogwash of brave Jesuits fighting to defend the Indians from the colonial armies. Christian missionaries must bear part of the burden of guilt for the brutal suppression of the Indian population in South America even of they themselves did sometimes get caught in the crossfire.

Janie Percy-Smith

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