The Cliff Scenes of The Mission: An Affirmation of Contrasting Goals The Mission, directed by Roland Joffé, examines the interaction between a group of white Jesuit priests, slave traders, the Portuguese army, and a tribe of South American Indians called the Guarani. One specific relationship depicted in the film occurs between Rodrigo Mendoza, one of the slave traders, and the leader of the Jesuits, Father Gabriel. One of the Jesuit order's priests is killed by the Guarani, and Father Gabriel sets out to discover, and convert, these natives. He undertakes a perilous climb, often under a waterfall, to reach the top of the cliff upon which the Guarani live. After murdering his brother, Rodrigo resigns himself to a life of penitent self-deprivation in a mission's cells. After considerable persuasion, he attempts to find a "way out" with penance, which involves carrying his armor up the cliff to meet the Guarani tribe. After a visiting Cardinal waives church protection over the missions, Portuguese troops mount the waterfall, and destroy the mission. All three of these ascents, and the format of their presentation, suggest the contrasting goals and characters portrayed in The Mission. The ways in which these three instances are presented on screen reinforce the differences between the depicted characters.
Father Gabriel's sole purpose in traveling to see the Guarani is to spread the word of God. His soul is clean, and he walks with God in everything he does. "God is love" he tells Rodrigo, and this idea is precisely what he preaches, both in word and actions. His purity is exemplified in his ascent of the waterfall. Throughout the entire experience, he is covered from head to toe in water: either streaming down from above, or clinging to his shirt and hair. He is enshrouded in a layer of “purity”. While moving up the rock face, his foot slips, and the shot shifts to a high angle looking down on the waterfall thundering upon sharp, perilous boulders. He miraculously avoids a very lethal fall, continues up the cliff, and hugs even tighter to the rock. In everything he does, even through adversity or hardship, he keeps himself locked on to the word and will of God, the ever-stable rock. Father Gabriel’s clean, pious image is re-affirmed in his drenched, yet always steadfast, journey up the cliffs of the waterfall.
In contrast, Rodrigo Mendoza indulges in the profitable, yet morally decrepit, South American slave trade. Upon returning from a "hunt", He discovers that his lover, lonely from all of the time apart, has fallen for his brother, Felipé. Although he assures her that he "won't hurt [Felipé]", Rodrigo kills him. “The law can't touch [Rodrigo]" because, technically, he was challenged to a duel. Rodrigo does come to see the error of his ways, and convinces himself that for him "there is no redemption". Father Gabriel, however, persuades Rodrigo to attempt a penance. He must cleanse himself by climbing the cliffs to the Guarani tribal lands, this time in peace. Unlike Father Gabriel before him, Rodrigo climbs along the trail prepared for him by the priests. Although he falls, Father Gabriel is there to catch him. He cannot accomplish the ascent alone; he must have the love and support of the priests. He carries on his back a net full of his armor and weaponry from his time as a slave trader. Carrying his past conquests up the cliff represents the purging of the weight of all of the lives he has ended, all of the people he has hurt, all of the souls he has imprisoned by slavery. He must suffer just as he caused suffering, and the recognition of this wrongdoing leads to his confirmation as a Jesuit. Without his climb, Rodrigo would not be able to enter a new chapter in his life as a member of the order.
A Cardinal, assigned by the pope to determine the merit of the Jesuit missions, determines that they should be shut down in order to preserve the integrity of the church and protect the Jesuit order itself. By removing this safeguard, the missions become subject to Portuguese rule. The Portuguese army launches an attack in order to capture the hundreds of Guarani seeking shelter in the missions. The army must mount the cliff to assail the mission, which is perched in the middle of the jungle above the waterfall. This operation includes multiple cranes, winches, and hundreds of troops. Joffé captures the industrial scene with a panoramic view of the cliff face, with dozens of soldiers being hoisted up. The long view contrasts with the close-up, personal shots shown of Father Gabriel as he climbs the rocks. Another contrast between these two scenes is again in the use of water, or lack of it. As the Portuguese climb, there is not a drop of water in sight. The cliff is covered in a layer of earth and dust, and there is no thundering waterfall. The dryness highlights the army's withdrawn, businesslike attitude, which contrasts with the soaked, water-logged ascent of Father Gabriel. Although they serve a “Catholic king”, they are far from the godly image of Father Gabriel. Instead of realizing what they are doing, the soldiers continue to march in line, and shoot at unarmed, peaceful Guarani women and children. The dry, mechanized ascent of the Portuguese army exemplifies the deficiency of morals and coldness shown by their leaders.
Through the use of the cinematography, Roland Joffé juxtaposes the personal approach of Father Gabriel with the mass-executed Portuguese attack on the mission. These effects strengthen the viewer’s sentiments about each character, and in so doing, establish the point of view with which they see the underlying question of the film: should the missions succeed? As the cliff scenes suggest, by all means.
The Mission. Dir. Joffé, Roland. Perf. Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro. Warner Brothers, 1986.