The Mission (1986)

Roland Joffe'

Mystery, Gospel

Written by Robert Bolt, Cinematography by Chris Menges, Music by Ennio Morricone, Starring Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro, and Ray McAnally. 125 mins. Rated PG.

There’s more than one way of catching Jesus, meaning the deep-core of Him, a hard task in any setting, to be very sure.  Words go only so far, especially when it comes to unpacking all those wild and scary stories he offers, parable upon parable–and, for that matter, what happens to him, or what all of that means.  Or sermons limning the impossible, such as turning cheeks or blazing fields of flowers more radiant than all those Trump towers. About these this mysterious Jesus fellow can’t really actually be serious, or can he?  Best avoid these sorts of texts altogether than jostle any one’s comfort zone.

Near the Iguaza Falls in 18th Century Brazil, a lone Jesuit missionary, one Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), scales the Falls’ water-slick rock face to bring his message to the Guarani, a tribal band that recently killed one of Gabriel’s priestly brother (they strapped him to a cross and set him afloat in a river that spills over the Falls, as depicted in The Mission’s spectacular opening sequence).


And now, again, another amply frightened priest ventures into jungles of the Guarani.  This time, though, this priest, will gamble big, risking his very own self on a hunch.  He will forego words, the usual go-to of proselytizers.  Instead, in a small clearing not to preach but to play a recorder, he startles at every jungle noise.  Scared for his life, he is, as he well should be.

What he plays, though, is more than fitting: a gentle, lilting tune whose tenderness and delight are, in fact, beyond telling, at least with words (composed by Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers of music for film). Indeed, the music itself seems, mysteriously, to dive to the inmost, unfathomable depths of the Gospel, to the very heart of the God he wishes to bring to the Guarani.  Here, in a setting likely to take his own life, Gabriel, appropriately named, risks music.  To be sure, music itself, as all the arts, is mystery, and here the mystery searches Mystery, and especially the outlandish notion of a divine whose essential core is outlandish love for a wayward, ever-suffering humankind.  Perhaps here we hear and feel in one’s own soul the inmost texture of Being itself (the same reason perhaps that monks labor to sing their way into the very heart of God).

SEQUENCE  10:30-14:24

Hear then, for the music entices, dives, and envelops, till perhaps hearers enter the music itself, becoming the “music while the music lasts,” as poet T. S. Eliot put the journey in his stunning Four Quartets (“Dry Salvages,” IV).  Though the music may still comprise no more than a “broken hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen), hear the music we must, and hear it again, and be the music.  Just ask Gabriel.

written by Roy Anker