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On January 13, 1750 the kings of Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Madrid, which redrew the lines of control between the two countries’ South American possessions. As a consequence seven independent Jesuit missions of the upper Uruguay River (in what is now Paraguay), passed from Spanish to Portuguese control. Four years later the so-called Guarani War (1754-1756) began to forcibly expel the Indians from these missions. It is against this historical backdrop that the 1986 film The Mission is set.
The film details the effort of Father Gabriel and his companion priests to first establish, then maintain a mission among these Guarani Indians. It operates on three levels, telling interlocking stories. First, on a personal level, there is the story of Rodrigo, a Spanish mercenary who, after killing his brother, renounces his past and attempts to atone by joining the missionaries. Second, on a communal level, there is the primary narrative of these missionaries who initially, and at great personal risk, travel above the falls to encounter the Guarani, eventually winning them over and establishing their mission. Finally, there is a global/political story.
The film opens with the arrival of Altamirano, a Jesuit envoy who has come ostensibly to investigate the situation. But in reality he has explicit orders from his Superior General to see that these missions are dismantled. Back in Europe the Jesuit Order had come under severe political pressure and its very existence then appeared in jeopardy. And in fact, in 1773 the Pope would suppress it, with restoration not coming until 1814. So the political situation seemed to dictate (apologies to John 11:50) that it was better for a few missions to ‘die’ than for the whole Order to be destroyed.
The portrayal of Rodrigo’s quest for redemption is the most viewer-accessible story thread. But the film handles it almost too simplistically. The communal story carries the main plot line from first contact to the film-ending battle and annihilation of the Mission. The global context and corresponding dilemma is the least accessible. You likely need some familiarity with this quite obscure history to fully understand Altimirano’s inner conflict. But I think it is here that the drama is most interesting, complex and significant.
There is a temptation to cut through complex ethical problems with the simplistic principle of proximity – both in space and time. That is, if there is some ‘X’ facing you here and now, and choosing to do X seems to be bad, then you should never do X. But what if there is some other ‘Y’, less proximate, that would result if you don’t do X? Perhaps Y could ultimately turn out to be worse. Such trade-offs are real, and choosing wisely is frequently both morally significant and very difficult to decide. Here is the root of the genuine pain we see in Altimirano’s ongoing reaction to the obvious good being done by the Mission, contrasted with his belief that allowing it to continue could ultimately jeopardize the entire Jesuit Order’s existence.
Now, it is easy and clear for us, on the one hand, to condemn Caiaphas for plotting Jesus’ death with his famous words “it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." John 11:50 (NIV). This was, after all, the Son of God they wanted dead. And their culpability was great. But in contrast consider the well-known ‘Jews in the Barn’ scenario, sometimes used in ethics texts to illustrate this dilemma.
In that hypothetical situation you are living during World War II under Nazi occupation. You know that there are some Jews hiding in a nearby barn. Then the Gestapo knocks at your door and asks if you know where they are hiding. Should you lie? The principle of proximity would say: do not lie, you have been asked a question here and now, and lying is always wrong. But telling the truth – an immediate and local ‘good’ –would likely have the heavier moral consequence of sending innocent people to a Concentration Camp and eventual death. So now (again paralleling John 11:50) is it better to tell a lie to some bad men rather than have an entire family destroyed? In this case we might conclude that lying is preferable.
But such a conclusion would be controversial. Immanuel Kant famously articulated his Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” And you cannot universalize lying. Kant’s idea certainly feels right – it resonates with our innate sense of justice and morality. It has also been heavily and persuasively critiqued. And within Adventism there is a 1998 JATS article by Ron Du Preez, titled “A Holocaust of Deception: Lying to Save Life and Biblical Morality”, in which he (unconvincingly to me) tries to resolve the ‘Jews in the Barn’ dilemma in favor of a ‘never lie’ principle.
Whatever your initial views on this issue, reflection and deeper investigation should at least persuade you that solutions to such problems are not always easy. In the film we watch as Altimirano struggles with this. And there is also the additional dimension of his vows to the Order – to do his duty. And that duty leaves him no viable alternative except to allow the mission to be destroyed.
The film critics have noted that The Mission does not do adequate justice to all three of these narratives. Too much has been attempted. And I would agree. Sometimes less is more. But even so there is much here to ponder, so many important ideas to wrestle with. Beautifully photographed and with an award-winning score, The Mission can be, for the thoughtful viewer, a discovered gem.
Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.