Roland Joffe, the director, pulls few punches. The film opens with the dictation of a letter to the Pope by a prominent religious figure, Altamirano, who has just undergone the events that will transpire in the film, and we learn that these events are not pleasant: "the local savages are now free to be enslaved by his Holiness . . ."
These events "were brought about" by the horrifying martyrdom of a Jesuit priest, who had journeyed to the "uncivilized" lands of the Indians above the falls (and what falls!). The local Indians, apparently rejecting his Christian teachings, crucify him and toss him into a river . . . a river that soon flows to the falls, and the descending cross is one of the most haunting images you will ever see on film.
In response, another Jesuit priest, Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) heads above the falls, and uses his music (score by Ennio Morricone of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" fame) to win the trust of the locals. Soon he is preaching the Word of God among them.
Unfortunately, the slaver/mercenary Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) is hunting the Indians for slavers. He ominously warns Gabriel about the futility of building a mission among the Indians, and he seizes several.
On his return to "civilization" below the falls (the dusty town stands in marked contrast to the lush greenery above the falls), Rodrigo learns that his beloved Carlotta does not love Rodrigo, but has fallen for Rodrigo's younger brother, Felipe (Aiden Quinn). Rodrigo, far from a reasonable sort, kills his brother shortly thereafter in a trumped-up quarrel. Distraught, Rodrigo eventually agrees to do his penance above the falls with Gabriel and his fellow Jesuits (including a young Liam Neeson).
Following a tortuous climb above the falls with his lodestone of arms and armor, Rodrigo finds salvation and seeks to become a Jesuit. The mission above the falls takes shape, and all seems to be right with the world.
Of course, this is not to be. The slavers need their slaves, and they exert enormous pressure against the church -- the Catholic Church is not as strong as it once was, and the militant Jesuits are becoming a nuisance by sapping the supply of slaves (apparently it is too inconvenient to enslave Christians, so the slavers argue that the Indians are monkeys without souls -- nice).
Altamirano agrees to visit both the local mission (a gorgeous, mammoth structure complete with farm and Indian priests) as well as the more primitive mission above the falls . . . which is even more impressive despite (and perhaps because of) it's remoteness.
But, politics being politics, the missions are doomed and the Indians will be enslaved. Rodrigo and the younger priests decide to fight, leading to one of the more disturbing battles you will see on-screen. It's not "Saving Private Ryan" in its horrors, but it is emotionally wrenching to see the Jesuits and the Indians fight such in such a foregone conclusion.
Even more gut-wrenching is Gabriel, who chooses a non-violent response. In a pitch-perfect performance, Irons emobodies the Jesuit commitment to the simple words of Christ . . . not that it does him or the Indians much good in this world.
A haunting spectacle and far from a feel-good movie, "The Mission" deserves full marks for its depiction of a common conflict (Europe versus the New World) in a different setting. A top-notch cast and a wonderfully shot film make this one for the video library.
The Mission directed by Roland Joffe is the story of the struggle between theocracy and theodicy. Read more