Monday, July 01, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 1: Your Favorite Film

One thing I learned from my participation in the 30 Day Song Challenges (the Original and the Sequel) is that I almost always second-guess my selections the very day after I pick them.  I've pretty much resigned myself to that phenomenon now and so, instead of laboring for hours and hours to be certain of my pick, I've decided that it's best just to go with my gut instincts.  To wit, the very first film that came to mind when I read this morning's prompt was the 1986 film The Mission, directed by Roland Joffé, scored by Ennio Morricone, and starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. The Mission is by far one of the most beautiful films ever made, both its cinematography and its soundtrack are nothing short of sublime.  The story is epic, sweeping, world-historical.  It's got an all-star cast, in some of the best performances of their careers, and it manages to capture both the grand themes and the subtle nuances of truly timeless moral, religious and political questions in just barely over two hours.  This is definitely the film that I most often say is my "favorite film," and whenever I see another film that I think is amazing, I almost always ask myself whether or not I think it's as good as The Mission

The Mission tells the story of an 18th C. Jesuit Reduction, which were settlements established throughout Latin America as a part of the complicated strategy of the Spanish Empire to govern the indigenous peoples of its colonies.  In this story, Spanish Jesuits are trying to protect a remote South American Indian tribe from falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal by building a mission.  Robert De Niro plays Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary and slave trader with a quick temper and an even quicker blade, who is given reason to reexamine his trade and commitments after accidentally killing his brother in a sword fight.  Mendoza retires to a Jesuit monastery to seek penance, where he is offered such by the young, idealistic Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), who insists that Mendoza travel to the mission they are building above the falls literally carrying the tools of his former life on his back.  Father Gabriel and Mendoza work together to build the mission and secure relationships with the
Guaraní who live there, but when the mission comes under attack, they part ways with regard to how their moral obligation to protect the mission and its inhabitants is to be executed.  Mendoza wants to fight, Father Gabriel cannot.  

The larger story of this film is the ugly story of European colonialism, of slavery, of the political ambitions of the Church and the religious manipulations of the State, of the violent and bloody decimation of indigenous peoples and cultures like the Guaraní in the 18th century, and of the formation of the now-sedimented and deeply-dividing line between the global North and South.  The smaller story of this film is the story of iniquity and penance, of one man's need to make right what he has done wrong, and his realization of how precious little the world around us is willing to aid in our search for exculpation.  Is justice achieved with the heart or the sword?  Can mercy ever trump power?  Does purgation require vindication?  Are we our brothers' keepers?

In one particularly powerful scene, the conniving and amoral slave-trader Hontar tries to assuage the conscience of his superior Altamirano, an emissary from the Pope in Rome, by providing him reason to diavow personal responsibility for the inhumanity around them.  Hontar says:: "We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus."  To which Altamirano replies, "
No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world... thus have I made it." 

The Mission could very easily be mistaken for a theodical film.  But it isn't so.  It is a film about the world we have made, you and I have made, not the world that God made. For that reason, perhaps above all others, it remains my favorite film.

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