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DM's: The Presence of Religion in 'The Mission' (Roland Joffe)

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A Film About Religion, That is Not Religious?

This is an original draft. This draft is not meant for citation.

In the 1700’s many Spanish Jesuits were sent to the South American rain forest to save the souls of the native people. This attempt to spread Christianity was not always openly accepted by the native tribes, leading to multiple deaths for both parties involved. This attempt to convert the Native Americans to Christianity is something that is shown and explored in a film titled The Mission. Roland Joffe, director of The Mission, claims that his 1986 film is not about religion. Even if it may have not been Joffe’s intention, it is obvious that religion is most definitely one of the central ideas for this film.[1] The Mission contains multiple scenes that contain religious actions, ideas and/or symbols at different times throughout the film. The two main religious themes in the film are: the idea of physically fighting for a group of people (who now seem like your own people) and the idea of remaining with that group people, even if both situations could mean placing one’s own life in danger or even sacrificing one’s life. Both of these actions are very Christ-like and could thus be related to religion. Having religious figures in a film opens the door for the presence of multiple religious symbols. It is possible that this film could be considered as a non-religious film, but it can absolutely be argued that religion is a central idea or theme in this film.

Two of the more noticeable and recognizable Christian symbols used throughout the film are the Holy Bible and the cross. Both of these images are present as the indigenous Indian population and the Jesuits interact. The Bible is a religious symbol because it is the main religious text for the Christian people; it is found in many scenes during the film. The cross is also present in the film from the very beginning, as a Jesuit missionary is strapped to a cross shaped raft. He is then sent down the river where it is presumed that he falls to his death, tumbling over a waterfall. The importance of this symbol, in Christianity alone, is tremendous. Many Christians carry the cross on necklaces or hang them on walls inside their personal homes. One other image, present in the film, which parallels to the Christian tradition, is the repentance of a person. This causes the person to completely switch sides in a battle or war.


Overview of The Mission

The film The Mission is a true story that takes place as a Spanish Jesuit, played by Jeremy Irons, is assuming leadership of a mission to the notably hostile Guarani Indians.[2] Father Gabriel takes control and begins a successful mission, actively converting dozens of Guarani to Christianity.As this is happening, another man named Rodrigo Mendoza, portrayed by Robert De Niro, leaves the town below the falls in search of Indians. Rodrigo is a mercenary/slave hunter and frequents the top of the falls often to illegally trap the native Indian people. These Indian people are then taken back to the village below the falls and sold into slavery on Spanish owned land.[3]

On one of his hunting trips Rodrigo happens across the group of Guarani Indians and tries to catch them. He eventually realizes that these men are part of a mission and meets Father Gabriel. Rodrigo returns to the village with a few captured Indians to sell to Don Cabeza. His return is not as he had hoped as he returns to hear his wife say she has fallen in love with another man, Rodrigo’s brother Felipe. Rodrigo is infuriated and eventually kills Felipe in a duel. Since dueling is not illegal and a death due to dueling is not murder, Rodrigo is not punished by law. He is still extremely upset and takes refuge in the church, refusing to eat or talk to anyone. Father Gabriel returns to the village and eventually meets Rodrigo again. Father Gabriel talks with him and encourages him to live the life of a courageous man by seeking penance for what he has done. The first part of his penance is to carry his net of armor up the cliffs and through the jungle, to where the Guarani live. Rodrigo is shown climbing the falls with Father Gabriel as they are heading back to the mission together. He struggles mightily but refuses to let the burden stop his travels. The priests begin to fear for Rodrigo as they arrive closer to the Guarani, how would they react when they saw him?

Upon arrival Rodrigo is grabbed by his hair and a knife is held to his throat, but his need to live has vanished and the fear of death is not present in his face. The Guarani tribesman decide to let him live and shows the Christian idea of forgiveness as they accept him. Rodrigo is later shown serving food to the Jesuits. At this dinner scene Father Gabriel tells Rodrigo that he must thank the Guarani for their forgiveness. When Rodrigo asks why, Gabriel simply hands Rodrigo a Bible and exclaims ‘read this.’ The scene that follows is very powerful as Rodrigo is shown with the tribe’s people as his voice is read from Corinthians:

‘Though I have all faith so that I could move mountains and have not love, I have nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor and though I give my body to be burned and have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth long and is kind. Love envieth not. Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up. When I was a child I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. But now abideth faith, hope, love; these three. But the greatest of these is love.’[4]

He begins to immerse himself in the life of a Spanish Jesuit and later takes vows to join the Jesuit order. This is short lived as there is a political disturbance between the Spanish, Portuguese, and Catholic Church. The disturbance is due to the fact that the Spanish gave up their land to the Portuguese, but there are still Spanish missions on the land. The church must decide if it will grant its protection to the mission, and by extension the Indians.

The mission is eventually told that they will not be protected and must leave. The Cardinal orders the Jesuits to abandon the mission and return with him to Europe. He also orders the Guarani to return to the jungle. The Guarani are confused by this and asks why they must leave their home. The Guarani ask ‘Has God abandoned us?’ The Jesuits, including Mendoza, decide that they will not leave. They are determined to stay but the Spanish send troops to force them out or kill them. The Jesuits must then decide what they will do when the troops arrive.

The Jesuit priests are divided, as are the Guarani, as to what action they should take. Mendoza and his half take up arms to fight back the Spanish troops. He trains many of the Indians in building multiple scatter shot cannons out of wood and they prepare to resist. Gabriel chooses to return to the church. Here he holds a final service for his adopted tribe, even as he is being shot at with flaming arrows and bullets. The Spanish arrive and both Jesuits resist in their own way, but they are no match for the Spanish soldiers. The film ends as the nine survivors Guarani paddle upstream, back into the heart of the jungle, back into the darkness.

The Mission – Not a Religious Film?

Even though The Mission shows Spanish Jesuits introducing Christianity to the Guarani and has multiple religious figures in it, director Roland Joffe claimed that his film was not about religion. Joffe exclaims:

‘In a way this is a film that has religion in it, but it’s not really about religion. It’s about human beings. It’s about some human beings who believed deeply in religion, but it’s a movie about love, and it’s a movie about what love is. It’s a movie about the pain of love; about the vulnerability of love; about the longing for peace that love can bring or that the lack of love can take away.’[5]

While this could be true, this is exactly what Jesus taught in his lifetime. According to the Bible, Jesus lived to spread his love and died to show God’s love. In essence this is exactly what Rodrigo and Father Gabriel do in this film, just in different ways. Even though Joffe claims the film is not about religion, religion is the center of the action. This film is religious and about religion, even if only by accident.


Fighting For An Adopted People

John 3:16 states: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’[6] This single Bible verse is currently the marque verse for most Christians worldwide. The idea is that God only had one child and he sent him to die so that others may live eternally. This verse can also be dissected a bit more to show that Jesus was not necessarily human. This is not to say that Jesus is an alien from outer space, but only to say that Jesus is the son of a God. This would mean that Jesus would be more akin to the likes of Hercules, Theseus, Hanuman, Garuda (also known as demi-gods). Jesus is sent to the Virgin Mary and adopts the Jewish people as his own. In this very same way the Jesuits adopt the Guarani people as their own even though they are actually foreign to the group.

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Father Mendoza comes to the mission and is converted to the life of a Jesuit. He is accepted by the Guarani Indians and decides to fight for them at the end of the film. Though Jesus did not really fight physically like Mendoza it is the mental, emotional and spiritual way of fighting that can be attributed to both Jesus and Mendoza. Mendoza takes up arms against a Spanish regime. His dedication parallels that of Jesus as he decided to spread the views of Christianity throughout Rome and everywhere else. Jesus knew that such actions could lead to his death but chose to continue because of his true benevolence for his adopted family. The same is true for Mendoza as he stands and fights even though death is a certain outcome.

Staying Until The End

Staying until the end can be paralleled to Jesus’ actions in Matthew 26. Jesus knew very well that one of his disciples would betray him, saying ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me,’ as he and his disciples dined at the last supper.[7] Instead of attempting to flee, he accepted his fate and chose to remain near his people until the Roman officials came to arrest him for treason. In this same way, Father Gabriel decides to remain with his people until his life is cut down with his adopted people. His way is different from Father Mendoza’s because Mendoza chose to physically fight the persecutors, while Gabriel chose to return to the village and hold a church service.

The service seems barely interrupted as Gabriel leads the Guarani in worship. The outcome and effect that both characters have on the film and audience are similar though. Though Gabriel did not fight with arms, he fought passively. This seems like a contradiction unless one remembers great rebellions that have happened more recently in history. One example is the peaceful protests by thousands of African-Americans, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. King did not believe in fighting back with the same type of physical and criminally charged actions that others, like Malcolm X, believed in using. Instead he believed in actions similar to sit-ins. In Greensboro, North Carolina a group of African-American males entered Woolworth’s and ordered a cup of coffee at the ‘Whites only’ counter and was refused service. This type of protest spread and was very effective, without any violence. This is the same type of protest seen in the Bible and in The Mission.

Passively fighting was the method of fighting for Jesus and Father Gabriel alike. In each man’s life story they lived a life that spread the knowledge of God and Christianity, but in the end each man chose not to fight against their aggressors. In the Bible Jesus goes to Gethsemane to pray to God before being arrested and eventually killed. Jesus only took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee with him. Similar to this is the way that Father Gabriel only had half of the Guarani tribe come with him as he went back to the church to have another service before dying.[8]

Both Are Ways Of Christ

As shown above these two very different characters are both Christ-like personages. Though both are very different in their attempt to protect the Guarani people, they each fight for a group that doesn’t necessarily belong to them, against a group of people who has identified with them. For Jesus, the identifying group was the Jewish community. In Deuteronomy 14:2 it is said ‘For you (the Jews) are a holy people to YHWH your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth.’[9] Later in the Bible Jesus is being judged and Pilate leaves Jesus’ fate up to the crowd of Jewish people. The Jewish people allow a murderer to go free so that Jesus may die. Pilate then washes his hands and the crowd claims ‘Crucify him! His blood is on our hands and the hands of our children!’

Jesus was then crucified. He died by the choice of his own people. In this same way the Spanish mission, including Father Mendoza and Father Gabriel, is demolished. In The Mission the people who execute the Jesuits and Guarani Indians are Spanish soldiers. Father Gabriel was a Spanish Jesuit and was shot by the Spanish troops as he held service. Father Mendoza was Portuguese, but would still be considered as being killed by his own people because they were all European.


Religious Symbols – The Bible

The Bible is a religious symbol that is used frequently in this film. It is seen as an essential part of the religious ceremonies when the Jesuits are holding church service. The Bible is also seen when Father Gabriel is talking to different Guarani about Christianity. The Bible is not simply a prop in this movie; it is more of a central item. It is shown to be central to all Christianity as well. This is accomplished by showing the Bible in many different locations. The Bible is with Father Gabriel and Father Mendoza, in the South American Jungle, but is also present with the Cardinal as he is deciding to disband the South American mission after the land is given to the Portuguese. Being a symbol of a religion leads to it gaining other meanings too.

The Bible can be thought of as an item of initiation. This idea comes from the scene where Father Gabriel is accepting Father Mendoza into his mission. After gaining entrance into the mission, Father Mendoza is given a Bible. This gift is not just the gift of a book. It is the gift of God and the gift of true love. It is the gift of eternal life through the belief in Jesus Christ. This same idea is seen as some Guarani are seen with Bibles open, whether they could read the text or not.[10]

Religious Symbols – The Cross

The cross is quite possibly the most used religious item in this entire film. It can be seen from the opening minutes through to the closing minutes. The first sight of the cross is seen as a priest is seen floating down the river. He has the appearance of Jesus Christ as he is strapped to a cross with a crown of thorns on his head and a wound on his side. Immediately before this scene, it is shown that the priest was tied to the cross by the Guarani. The cross is floated down the stream as the priest is shown to still be breathing. He reaches his end as he plunges over the falls. It is here that his grave marker is made; his cross necklace is laid atop the rock-pile grave marker.

Upon arriving at the grave, Father Gabriel takes a moment to honor the dead and then removes the cross necklace, placing it upon his neck. It is constantly seen dangling there in almost every scene. This cross does not only signify the death of the Jesuit or Jesus. It symbolizes the sacrifice that is made by the Jesuits and Jesus. That is the sacrifice of their lives. In a later scene it is shown that Father Gabriel gives Mendoza a cross necklace, the very same one that came from the dead priest. This passing along of the cross signifies the fact that Father Gabriel knows that he will die. He must sacrifice his life and if anyone will be able to live on it would be Mendoza. This passing of the cross is not the final time the cross is shown though.

As the Spanish soldiers prepare their assault on the tiny mission, they stop and peer across the stream at the church service taking place. They hear the hymns being sung by the Guarani and exclaim that they do not wish to attack the village. The commander does not care and demands the soldiers to attack. As they attack the Guarani, Father Gabriel is shown carrying the golden ornament with a cross standing a top it. After Father Gabriel drops the piece it is lifted by a Guarani tribesman. As the village burns, the image of a flaming cross is shown, possibly symbolizing the forced removal of Christ.

Final Thoughts

The images of the bible and the reoccurring cross are strong indications that this film centers on religion. Joffe continues his argument that his film is not about religion, saying that it is about love instead. While this is true, it is important to remember that the reason for Jesus’ sacrifice was love. This same type of love was shown in the characters of Father Gabriel and Rodrigo Mendoza. Saying that this film is not about religion is to almost ignore the fact that these factual events took place because of religion. If the Catholic mission had not been established, these events would have never happened. It is very easy to see that this film does revolve around religious symbols and Christ-like sacrificial characters.


[1] Greydanus, Steven. "The Mission (1986)." Decent Films Guide, 2010. Web. 21 March 2012. <>. This is obvious because of the simple fact that the entire story is based around the struggle for a mission in South America to keep its protection from the Catholic Church. This mission services the local natives who come to live at the mission, most deciding to convert to Christianity.

[2] Saloman, Frank & Schwartz, Stuart. The Cambridge History of the Native People of the Americas. Volume III, South America, Part 2. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 1999. Pg. 280-1. The Guarani Indians were constantly surrounded by rival tribes. Many of the Guarani thought of the European settlers as another rival tribe. This is why the Guarani were always aggressive, rarely accepting, and always suspicious.

[3] The Mission. Dir. Roland Joffe. Perf. Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. Warner Bros., 1986. Videocassette. It is made clear in the film that the Spanish did not allow slavery in their South American areas. However, Rodrigo was capturing and selling slaves to Don Cabeza, the Spanish landowner at the bottom of the falls.

[4] The Mission, 48:07. This scene is comprised of multiple verses from 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. The quote comes from verses 2-4, 11 & 14. The main theme of this quote is the idea of love being the most important part of love. This foreshadows later events of the movie.

[5] Hual, Jeff. "The Merciful Impasse and The Mission." Mockingbird, 07 Nov. 2011. Web. 17 Jan. 2012. <>. Joffe’s quote seems to say that the film simply has religion in it and that it is not about religion. Though the film may be about saving the Guarani tribe from slavery, it is also about saving the Guarani from eternal damnation in hell.

[6] The Holy Bible: NIV Version. 2008. New York: New York. Pg. 226. This verse is the signature verse for most Christians. It has become one of the first verses taught to converts.

[7] Holy Bible, 25. The similarity here can be seen as the knowledge of an imminent death. Both knew they would meet their end momentarily, but decided to die out of love for his people.

[8] Hual, Paragraph 7.

[9] Holy Bible, 221. This is one of many instances where the Jewish people are called to be God’s chosen ones.

[10] Brussat, Mary Ann, and Fredric Brussat. "Spirituality & Practice: Film Review: The Mission, Directed by Roland Joffe." Spirituality & Practice: Resources for Spiritual Journeys. Spirituality & Practice. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. <>. It is never really said if the Guarani could speak or read any of the European languages. It is never really shown that they have writing systems. The film only shows a few Guarani looking at Bibles, but none of these are close to the camera as they do so.


Brussat, Mary Ann, and Fredric Brussat. "Spirituality & Practice: Film Review: The Mission, Directed by Roland Joffe." Spirituality & Practice: Resources for Spiritual Journeys. Spirituality & Practice. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. <>.

The Holy Bible: NIV Version. 2008. New York: New York.

Hual, Jeff. "The Merciful Impasse and The Mission." Mockingbird, 07 Nov. 2011. Web. 17 Jan. 2012. <>.

The Mission. Dir. Roland Joffe. Perf. Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. Warner Bros., 1986. Videocassette.

Saloman, Frank & Schwartz, Stuart. The Cambridge History of the Native People of the Americas. Volume III, South America, Part 2. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 1999. Pg. 280-1.

Greydanus, Steven. "The Mission (1986)." Decent Films Guide, 2010. Web. 21 March 2012. <>.

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