The Mission supposedly represents true events that took place in the 1700’s in Paraguay. It portrays a Jesuit mission’s work among the natives and the eventual resistance that the natives and Jesuits stage against tyrannical Portuguese rule. Apart from glaring historical inaccuracies dealing with the rebellion itself (which are covered in Saeger’s article “The Mission and Historical Missions”), the movie’s portrayal of the natives ranges from inaccurate to insulting.
The Mission commits one of the most common errors for films and books about the Columbian Exchange: simplifying the natives and their culture. Books and films either lump indigenous people into all-knowing natural wise men or innocent, incompetent children. The Mission does the latter.
Because the film is focused on the priests, the native characters get relegated to mob like status. Other than face paint, there is little to distinguish one character from another, making the natives of the mission more like one character than many. Not even the leader of the tribe is given a name (Saeger 9), and the priests never address the natives by any individual names, despite the Fathers’ overwhelming “love” for the people of their mission. Aside from having no truly individual characters, the natives portray no genuine emotions either. Their reactions are often identical to the priests, offering them the role as mirror. It seems they exist for no other reason than to give the priests their final moment of nobility, with all reference to their own desires (which were often quite different from the priests [Saeger 5]) eliminated so that Robert DeNiro can play the hero.
This euro-centric view of the movie also explains the natives’ physical appearance. In the film, women allow their breasts to be exposed. Aside from the unlikelihood of Jesuit priests allowing women to walk around without clothing, the historical Guarani clothing covered the woman’s breasts (Saeger 5). The only reason the film would portray the women as half-naked would be to fit into Western views of what an indigenous person would look like. Again, the Guarani become little more than interesting props in The Mission, fulfilling the roles Western viewers expect them to fill.
In addition, little credit is given to native ingenuity and intelligence. Native aggression is simply tamed by playing a foreign instrument. Like animals, they seemed to be soothed by the sound of music (Western civilization). The same group of natives that were willing to throw a priest off the falls to his death at the start of the movie, embrace the next priest because he happens to bring along an oboe. This presentation of native culture is demeaning. It is the first example, of many, of natives being portrayed as animalistic or childlike. Ironically, the same movie creates this caricature has its lead characters defend the Guarani as “spiritual” creatures rather than “animalistic.” The Mission also shows the priests patronizingly teaching native basic skills, even though the Guarani already had developed agriculture and other techniques (Saeger 5). Even jungle warfare is assumed to be too much for the simple Guarani to handle, and the rebellion against the Portuguese is lead by priests, who have less military experience than the skilled Guarani hunters.
In conclusion, The Mission’s portrayal of the natives is far from accurate and is intentionally minimized to focus on the “true” heroes, the European priests. This Euro-centric view discredits native Guarani accomplishments and intelligence and instead presents the caricature of natives familiar to Westerners: simplistic children who must be “saved” by charitable Europeans.