The 1986 movie The Mission, directed by Roland Joffe, is at best “hit and miss” when judged on its representation of historical facts. I believe that the film successfully delivers its generalized message of Europeans going into indigenous land and supplanting their European culture and customs, as well as the aftermath that follows.
But when you delve into the facts it is easy to see just how much Joffe missed.
After reading part of John Charles Chasteen’s Born in Blood and Fire, I was able to see part of the actual constructs of the Guaraní and Jesuits as they were viewed historically. Just as in the movie, the Jesuits were there to serve out God’s purpose and help save the indigenous. The Jesuits did save people; however, in the beginning, the Jesuits were saving more indigenous from the slave traders and the Spanish/ Portuguese colonists than the temptations of the devil. Olga Merino and Linda Newson’s journal, entitled “Jesuit Missions in Spanish America: The Aftermath of the Expulsion,” depicts the struggles of the Jesuits very similar to the way Joffe depicts them. Merino and Newson wrote that the Jesuits dealt with slave traders, like Rodrigo, the colonizing Portuguese, and the encomenderos that wanted to use the indigenous for slave labor
Although I enjoyed reading Chasteen’s book, I found that Saeger’s essay, “The Mission and Historical Missions,” was more useful in determining which parts of the film were historically accurate. What took me by surprise was that the actual personalities of the two main groups, the Jesuits and the Guaraní. Both of these groups were greatly altered for the movie. In the movie, the Guaraní are depicted as the stereotypical indigenous, not smart, not spiritually saved, and easily swayed by the Europeans and their fine culture. The Jesuits are viewed as the people who made everything better, the Guaraní’s saviors.
Historically, things were different. According to Saeger, the Guaraní did like the Jesuits that they encountered, but not because they brought the word of the Lord with them. The Guaraní were a smart people that did what they had to do in order to survive. Saeger notes that these people would not be swayed by the beautiful song of an oboe, played by a stranger in the forest. Instead the indigenous would have formed a friendship with the Jesuits in order to have access to the resources, like iron, that the Europeans had. It was a symbiotic relationship. The Jesuits had the opportunity to preach to the Guaraní in exchange for the resources that the Jesuits would have brought with them.
When it comes to the topic of national identity, I think that perspective is important. From the perspective of the Europeans trying to colonize the lands of the indigenous, the indigenous were animals. The indigenous clearly thought of themselves as having their own customs, beliefs, and history. Joffe actually shows both perspectives in the scene where Don Cabeza describes the singing boy. Don Cabeza describes the Guaraní as animalistic creatures that can be taught to sing, while Father Gabriel defends the Guaraní people. Saeger notes that the Europeans would not have viewed the indigenous as their equals.
The movie was definitely interesting and, after reading more on the subject, I find that the movie was made for Hollywood and not to be historically accurate.