The Mission (1986 film)

The Mission is a 1986 British period drama film about the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in 18th-century South America.[4] Written by Robert Bolt and directed by Roland Joffé, the film stars Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, and Liam Neeson.

The Mission
Original film poster
Directed byRoland Joffé
Produced by
Written byRobert Bolt
Music byEnnio Morricone[1]
CinematographyChris Menges
Edited byJim Clark
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • 16 May 1986 (1986-05-16) (Cannes)
  • 31 October 1986 (1986-10-31) (United States)
Running time
125 minutes[2]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget£16.5 million[3]
Box office$17.2 million

It won the Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. In April 2007, it was elected number one on the Church Times' Top 50 Religious Films list.[5] Furthermore, it is one of fifteen films listed in the category "Religion" on the Vatican film list.[6] The music, scored by Italian composer Ennio Morricone, ranked 1st on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) Classic 100 Music in the Movies.


In the 1740s, Spanish Jesuit priest Father Gabriel enters the northeastern Argentina and eastern Paraguayan jungle to build a mission station and convert a Guaraní community to Christianity. The Guaraní are not initially receptive to Christianity or outsiders in general, and tie a priest to a wooden cross and send him over the Iguazu Falls. Father Gabriel travels to the falls, climbs to the top, and plays his oboe. The Guaraní warriors, captivated by the music, allow him to live.

Mercenary and slaver Rodrigo Mendoza makes his living kidnapping natives such as the Guarani community and selling them to nearby plantations, including the plantation of the Spanish Governor Don Cabeza. After returning from another kidnapping trip, Mendoza is told by his assumed fiancée, Carlotta, that she loves his younger half-brother Felipe. Mendoza later finds them in bed together and in a fit of rage kills Felipe in a duel. Although he is acquitted of the killing of Felipe, Mendoza spirals into depression. Father Gabriel visits and challenges Mendoza to undertake a suitable penance. Mendoza accompanies the Jesuits on their return journey, dragging a heavy bundle containing his armour and sword. After initially tense moments upon reaching the outskirts of the natives' territory, though they recognise him, the natives embrace a tearful Mendoza and cut away his heavy bundle.

Father Gabriel's mission is depicted as a place of sanctuary and education for the Guaraní. Moved by the Guaraní's acceptance, Mendoza wishes to help at the mission and Father Gabriel gives him a Bible. In time, Mendoza takes vows and becomes a Jesuit under Father Gabriel and his colleague Father Fielding.

The Jesuit missions were safe, because they were protected under Spanish law. The Treaty of Madrid (1750) reapportioned South American land on which the Jesuit missions were located, transferring the area to the Portuguese, who allowed slavery. The Portuguese colonials seek to enslave the natives, and as the independent Jesuit missions might impede this, Papal emissary Cardinal Altamirano, a former Jesuit priest, is sent from the Vatican to survey the missions and decide which, if any, should be allowed to remain.

Under pressure from both Cabeza and Portuguese representative Hontar, Cardinal Altamirano is forced to choose between two evils. If he rules in favour of the colonists, the indigenous peoples will become enslaved; if he rules in favour of the missions, the entire Jesuit Order may be condemned by the Portuguese and the European Catholic Church could fracture. Altamirano visits the missions and is amazed at their industry and success, both in converting the Indians and, in some cases, economically. At Father Gabriel's mission of San Carlos, he tries to explain the reasons behind closing the mission and instructs the Guaraní that they must leave, because it is God's will. The Guaraní question the validity of his claim, and argue God's will was to settle and develop the mission. Father Gabriel and Mendoza, under threat of excommunication, state their intention to defend the mission alongside the Guaraní if the plantation owners and colonists attack. They are, however, divided on how to do this, and they debate how to respond to the impending military attack. Father Gabriel believes that violence is a direct crime against God. Mendoza, however, decides to break his vows by militarily defending the Mission. Against Father Gabriel's wishes, he teaches the natives the European art of war and once more takes up his sword.

When a joint Portuguese and Spanish force attacks, the mission is initially defended by Mendoza, Fielding and the Guaraní. They are no match for the military force and Mendoza is shot and fatally wounded after the soldiers destroy a trap, allowing them to enter the village. Fielding sacrifices himself by killing the Portuguese commander before he is killed. Upon seeing the church at the mission village the soldiers become reluctant to fire. When the soldiers enter the mission village, they encounter the singing of Father Gabriel and the Guaraní women and children who march in the procession. Fr. Gabriel leads, carrying a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament. Ignoring this, the Spanish commander orders the attack; Father Gabriel, the rest of the priests and most of the Guaraní, including women and children, are gunned down. After Fr. Gabriel is shot, a child picks up the Blessed Sacrament and leads the procession. Only a handful escape into the jungle.

In a final exchange between Cardinal Altamirano and Hontar, Hontar laments that what happened was unfortunate but inevitable, because "we must work in the world; the world is thus." Altamirano replies, "No, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it." Days later, a canoe of young children return to the scene of the Mission massacre and salvage a few belongings. They set off up the river, going deeper into the jungle, with the thought that the events will remain in their memories. A final title declares that many priests continue to fight for the rights of indigenous people. The text of John 1:5 is displayed: "The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness hath not overcome it."


Historical basis

The Mission is based on events surrounding the Treaty of Madrid in 1750, in which Spain ceded part of Jesuit Paraguay to Portugal. A significant subtext is the impending suppression of the Jesuits, of which Father Gabriel is warned by the film's narrator, Cardinal Altamirano, who was once himself a Jesuit. Altamirano, speaking in hindsight in 1758, corresponds to the actual Andalusian Jesuit Father Luis Altamirano, who was sent by Jesuit Superior General Ignacio Visconti to Paraguay in 1752 to transfer territory from Spain to Portugal. He oversaw the transfer of seven missions south and east of the Río Uruguay, that had been settled by Guaraní and Jesuits in the 17th century. As compensation, Spain promised each mission 4,000 pesos, or fewer than 1 peso for each of the circa 30,000 Guaraní of the seven missions, while the cultivated lands, livestock, and buildings were estimated to be worth 7–16 million pesos. The film's climax is the Guaraní War of 1754–1756, during which historical Guaraní defended their homes against Spanish-Portuguese forces implementing the Treaty of Madrid. For the film, a re-creation was made of one of the seven missions, São Miguel das Missões.[8]

Father Gabriel's character is loosely based on the life of Paraguayan saint and Jesuit Roque González de Santa Cruz. The story is taken from the book The Lost Cities of Paraguay by Father C. J. McNaspy, S.J., who was also a consultant on the film.[9]

The waterfall setting of the film suggests the combination of these events with the story of older missions, founded between 1610–1630 on the Paranapanema River above the Guaíra Falls, from which Paulista slave raids forced Guaraní and Jesuits to flee in 1631. The battle at the end of the film evokes the eight-day Battle of Mbororé in 1641, a battle fought on land as well as in boats on rivers, in which the Jesuit-organised, firearm-equipped Guaraní forces stopped the Paulista raiders.[8]

Historical inaccuracies

The historical Altamirano was not a cardinal sent by the Pope, but an emissary sent by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Ignacio Visconti, to preserve the Jesuits in Europe in the face of attacks in Spain and Portugal.[10]

Filming locations

The film was mostly filmed in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The tunnels of Fort Amherst in Kent were used as part of the monastery where Mendoza (Robert De Niro) is being held after he murders his brother.[11]


The Mission soundtrack was written by Ennio Morricone. Beginning with a liturgical piece ("On Earth as It Is in Heaven") which becomes the "Spanish" theme, it moves quickly to the "Guaraní" theme, which is written in a heavily native style and uses several indigenous instruments. Later, Morricone defines the "Mission" theme as a duet between the "Spanish" and "Guaraní" themes.

Other themes throughout the movie include the "Penance", "Conquest" and "Ave Maria Guaraní" themes. In the latter, a large choir of indigenous people sing a rendition of the "Ave Maria".


Box Office

The film grossed $17.2 million at the US and international box office against a budget of £16.5 million, which at the time was the US equivalent of $25.4 million, making this film a commercial flop.

Goldcrest Films invested £15,130,000 in the film and received £12,250,000 losing them £2,880,000.[12]


The Mission received mixed to positive reviews from critics. The film currently holds a 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 25 reviews.[13]

Awards and honours

Academy Awards[14]

BAFTA Film Awards[15]

Cannes Film Festival

Golden Globe Awards[17]


The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

See also


  1. Ebert, Roger (14 November 1986). "The Mission". Review. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  2. "The Mission (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. 30 July 1986. Archived from the original on 20 October 2016. Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  3. "Puttnam bites back." Sunday Times [London, England] 22 Mar. 1987: 47. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
  4. Sheila Benson (14 November 1986). "Movie Review : A Dilemma Of Conscience At Heart Of 'The Mission'". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  5. "Top 50 Religious Films - Ray Fowler .org". Archived from the original on 9 January 2017. Retrieved 6 September 2016.
  6. SDG (2015). "The Mission (1986)". Decent Films. Steven D. Greydanus. Archived from the original on 22 December 2015. Retrieved 15 December 2015.
  7. Harris, Will. "Fred Melamed on Casual, the Coens, and making Larry David laugh". The A.V. Club. Archived from the original on 11 January 2018. Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  8. James Schofield Saeger (1995) "The Mission and Historical Missions: Film and the Writing of History." The Americas, Vol. 51, No. 3, pp. 393–415.
  9. Saxon, Wolfgang (8 February 1995). "C. J. McNaspy, 79, Jesuit Musicologist, Author and Linguist". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 19 August 2016.
  10. "The Mission". Archived from the original on 24 October 2014.
  11. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office The Mission Film Focus". Archived from the original on 26 March 2014.
  12. Eberts, Jake; Illott, Terry (1990). My indecision is final. Faber and Faber. p. 657.
  13. "The Mission". Archived from the original on 29 November 2017. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  14. "The 59th Academy Awards (1987) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 31 July 2011.
  15. "The 1987 Bafta Awards Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on 24 January 2015. Retrieved 23 January 2015.
  16. "Festival de Cannes: The Mission". Archived from the original on 7 August 2012. Retrieved 11 July 2009.
  17. "1986 Golden Globes nominees and winners". Archived from the original on 18 October 2014. Retrieved 23 January 2015.
  18. "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores" (PDF). American Film Institute. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 August 2016. Retrieved 14 August 2016.
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