The Mission is a movie directed by Roland Joffé in 1986, starring Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons and Ray McAnally. The action takes place during the mid 1700s and is a portrait of the late colonial era in South America. The famous soundtrack (Baroque stylish music) is by Ennio Morricone and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The movie received the Palme d'Or of Cannes' Festival in 1986.

The Story

Like many Jesuit missions (or reducciones) established in the hostile jungles of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, the church of San Jose, run by Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), is a prosperous model of harmony, protected by the crown of Spain. Peace is seldom interrupted by slave merchants, like Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), trying to capture the Guarani natives. Because of a quarrel Mendoza ends up killing his brother during a perfectly legal duel. Feeling guilty he decides to expiate his penance by joining the Jesuit effort.

As time passes by, Mendoza gets more and more acquainted with the Guarani and the Jesuits. He is now a Jesuit himself. Unfortunately the political context in Europe is changing and the kings of Spain and Portugal decide to exchange the territories the mission is built on. However in order to be allowed to do so, the Vatican must agree. So the Pope sends Altamirano (Ray McAnally), an envoy to see by himself what the situation is like in South America.

The main problem is that Spain has rather strict policies regarding slavery whereas Portugal hasn't. Should the mission become Portuguese, the natives would end up sold as slaves.

Eventually Spain cedes the colony to Portugal which jeopardizes the mission. Mendoza, braving Father Gabriel's advice, decides to organize the resistance with the Guarani and the movie ends in a tragic blood bath.

Historical Context

During the 18th century, both Spain and Portugal own about half the South American continent. The territory where the action takes place, located between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, is very rich and hence disputed between the two countries. It belongs to Spain. The crown had been protecting it for over two centuries and enticing Jesuits to set up missions which turned out to be very prosperous.

The Jesuits are ardent champions of the Pope. Rome, since the events of Valladolid in 1550, was strongly opposed to slavery, thus, the missions were not very profitable for the Spanish and Portuguese business interests because they were protecting Indians from being sold as slaves. So the political context came to a change and in 1750 the realms of Spain and Portugal signed a treaty that transfered the ownership of the territory from the former to the latter.

The exchange has had an important impact on missions built there : Firstly the Jesuits had to leave, and secondly the natives were enslaved since Portugal had no policy prohibiting slavery. However, Spain being highly catholic, the Vatican had to approve the exchange for it to be valid.

The Jesuits in South America were thus frankly opposed to the Portuguese. Since they were already a political target in Europe, in order for them not to be expelled from Portugal, Rome decided to allow the exchange. The war between the Guarani and the Portuguese lasted three years.

Facts and Fiction

Most of the events pictured in the movie are accurate. The Guarani did indeed accept the missions quite well : they worked in them, learnt the new religion and became good musicians. The mission of San Carlos did exist. And as hinted by Gabriel's refusal to resist, the Jesuits did leave the colony, leaving the Guarani to fight alone.

Altaminaro was an envoy to South America, but not a cardinal sent by the Pope. In fact he was an emissary sent by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus Ignazio Visconti. In the movie he has ambivalent feelings but historical evidence tends to show that he was not at all disturbed by the decision he had to take.

Both Gabriel and Rodrigo are of course fictional characters.

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