So far in the “Defining the Christian Movie” series, I’ve only shared with you movies that are explicitly Christian-themed and made by Christian filmmakers. But to be honest, this series has been leading up to the last two weeks. To me, there are two sides to the types of “Christian movies”: the very explicit and the very subtle. Movies like “Fireproof” and “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie” were very much on the explicit side. “To Save a Life” had strong Christian themes and references, but it didn’t exactly “preach”. But today’s movie and the movie I’ll be talking about next week are examples of why the term “Christian movie” is hard to define.
“The Mission” is a film about Jesuit missionaries in South America reaching an Indian tribe in the eighteenth century, so there are many references to Christianity, the Bible, and God. Is this a Christian movie? I’m not sure. Why? Because to my knowledge, the cast and crew were primarily made up of non-Christians. This film was made by the director of “The Killing Fields”, was written by the screenwriter of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”, features music by the composer for “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, and stars actors who have played in “Raging Bull”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Die Hard With a Vengeance.” This film features talent from all over the spectrum, but as far as I know, none of these people are actually Christian. However, the message of the film is so based in faith that it’s hard for someone not to refer to this as a “Christian movie”.
The movie’s prologue explains that there have been many missionaries that have ventured to these jungles in South America to convert and serve the natives, but have been killed in response. We even see a missionary being pushed down a river and down a waterfall, after the natives have tied him up to logs connected into the shape of a cross. But that doesn’t stop Jesuit Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) from climbing a mountain to get to the jungle. And once he gets up there, he speaks to the natives in a way that probably most missionaries never tried: through music. He takes out an oboe and starts playing music that attracts the natives (most of them, anyway) and starts his friendship with them. By the way, that music turns into one of the most powerful movie scores I’ve ever heard.
But meanwhile, slave trader Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) is making a profit from the natives he captures (the ones that Gabriel is trying to reach) and selling them in Spain. But back at his home, his lover has fallen for his brother Felipe, and the two eventually get into a duel in the middle of a street. Rodrigo stabs Felipe, killing him, and Rodrigo is incredibly distraught—especially because he cannot be punished by law for killing him, since he killed Felipe in a duel. But Gabriel comes to him at a church and tells him:
GABRIEL: There is life. …There is a way out, Mendoza.
RODRIGO: For me, there is no redemption.
GABRIEL: God gave us the burden of freedom. You chose your crime. Do you have the courage to choose your penance? Do you dare do that?
RODRIGO: There is no penance hard enough for me.
GABRIEL: There is. But do you dare try it?
RODRIGO: Do I dare? Do you dare to see it fail?
And in a very haunting several minutes, Rodrigo follows Gabriel and other Jesuits up the mountain to the jungle while he carries a net full of equipment he used to catch natives. The other priests try to convince Gabriel that it’s not worth it, but Gabriel still is determined to see Rodrigo climb the mountain. And when he gets to the top, the natives are there, waiting for him. One of them has a knife. He goes up to Rodrigo, yells at him in a foreign language, takes the knife, and…
The native cuts the rope of the net and tosses it over the mountain, sending it down to the river. Rodrigo has literally had his burden lifted off of him through forgiveness. He weeps and is comforted by Gabriel, the priests, and the natives. This is a scene that moves me to tears many times—to me, this parallels what happens when we confess our sins to God. I’ve gone to him many times with burdens, and when I can trust in Someone bigger than myself, it’s a huge relief. And what’s even more fascinating about this scene is the fact that this was created by non-Christian filmmakers! Isn’t it powerful that non-believers (at least, I think they’re non-believers) can find Christian themes so moving that they portray them that way on the screen?
Anyway, for the rest of the film, Rodrigo is learning more and more about being a Jesuit priest. He is finally… made one (I’m not sure what the right term is), but because of his history of slave trading, he often lets his anger get the better of him when debating with other slave traders, which gives the Jesuit priests a bad reputation. And at one point, the priests are told that they must leave the mission, because the land is being retaken by the Spanish government.
And this is where the climax of the movie occurs. A tension arises between Rodrigo, who wants to fight against those who have come to relocate them, and Gabriel, who wants to lead an anti-violent protest with the natives. The natives are divided between the two, but in the end, many priests and natives on both sides are killed, including Rodrigo and Gabriel (who both die while the music plays in the background that Gabriel played when he first reached the jungle). When Spanish official Altamirano (Ray McAnally) learns of this and becomes distraught, he is told by slave traders:
HONTAR: We must work in the world, Your Eminence. The world is thus.
ALTAMIRANO: No, Señor Hontar—thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.
And with that ambiguous ending, the movie closes with child natives walking around the destroyed mission and sailing down the river in a canoe. Very rarely does a “Christian movie” have such an ambiguous ending. But I think because the film is so subtle in what it’s trying to say, that it gives the audience more freedom to think for themselves—something that the dialogue in “Fireproof” or similar movies does not always allow. To me, this is a film about the power of forgiveness, but also about the power of (and often the way we forsake) love. In one scene, Rodrigo reads 1 Corinthians 13, the chapter that says “Love is patient, love is kind.” Whether or not the Jesuit missionaries followed up on this command to love through their violent and non-violent actions is ultimately up to the viewer to decide. And for this sense of ambiguity, these non-Christian filmmakers may even have created an even more powerful “Christian movie”.
Matthew 11:15: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”