The Mission (1986) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • Eighteenth-century Spanish Jesuits try to protect a remote South American tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.

  • Jeremy Irons plays a Spanish Jesuit who goes into the South American wilderness to build a mission in the hope of converting the Indians of the region. Robert De Niro plays a slave hunter who is converted and joins the Jesuit in his mission. When Spain sells the colony to Portugal, they are forced to defend all they have built against the Portuguese aggressors.

  • It's the mid-eighteenth century. Unlike his predecessor who was murdered and crucified for his efforts by the people in question, Father Gabriel, a Jesuit priest, is able to gain the trust of the Guaraní to build a mission in their region, above the falls in the border area of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, so that he can bring the word of a Christian god to the Guaraní. Father Gabriel's predecessor's fate was not only because of the Guaraní 's mistrust of him, but their mistrust of the white man in general, they who had previously pilfered many native South American tribes for slaves. Someone who unexpectedly joins Father Gabriel's order in building the mission is Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary and slave trader, who is trying to pay penance and repent for some past actions, most specifically an incident involving his half-brother. Father Gabriel's work and the lives of the Guaraní are threatened with the arrival into the area of Cardinal Altamirano, who must decide on the fate of the mission based on the fact that the land on which the mission sits has been ceded by the Spanish to the Portuguese, who are open to enslaving the indigenous peoples as opposed to the Spanish who officially banned the practice despite the former work of people like Mendoza. Cardinal Altamirano will factor into the equation of his decision that the Portuguese may take action against the church as a whole if this one mission is not closed. Father Gabriel and the order have to decide how to proceed, with the possibility that he and Mendoza will end up on different sides of the fence. Mendoza has vowed obedience to Father Gabriel in becoming a priest but may have definite and extreme views based on previously being a mercenary and slave trader. Meanwhile, Father Gabriel wants to protect the Guaraní under the name of God, they who have converted and who are in this position largely because of him.

  • Jesuit priest Father Gabriel enters the Guarani lands in South America with the purpose of converting the natives to Christianity. He soon builds a mission, where he is joined by Rodrigo Mendoza, a reformed slave trader seeking redemption. When a treaty transfers the land from Spain to Portugal, the Portuguese government wants to capture the natives for slave labor. Mendoza and Gabriel resolve to defend the mission, but disagree on how to accomplish the task.

  • Father Gabriel ascends the mountains of Brazil to bring christianity to the natives. He is successful and brings about a golden age among them. Mendoza, a slaver, kills his brother in a fit of rage, and only Fr. Gabriel's guidance prevents his suicide. Gabriel brings Mendoza to work at his mission with the natives, and Mendoza finds peace and asks to become a priest. The church, under pressure, cedes the land to the Portuguese which will allow slavers in again. Mendoza breaks his vows and organizes the natives to resist while Gabriel warns him to help them as a priest.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The film is set during the Jesuit Reductions, a program by which Jesuit missionaries set up missions independent of the Spanish state to teach Christianity to the natives. It tells the story of a Spanish Jesuit priest, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), who enters the South American jungle to build a mission and convert a community of Guaraní Indians to Christianity.

    In the opening scene, a Jesuit missionary is lashed to a cross by the Guarani Indians who live above the spectacular Iguazu Falls. The missionary is then sent over the falls, cross and all, while praying fervently to God. His martyrdom inspires the gentle Father Gabriel to scale the hazardous falls and try to reach out to the tribe. Initially, the Guarani warriors prepare to kill him, but after Gabriel plays an unforgettable solo on his oboe, they allow him to live and he gradually wins their trust.

    Mercenary and slaver Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) makes his living kidnapping natives and selling them to nearby plantations, including the plantation of the Spanish Governor Cabeza (Chuck Low). Mendoza subsequently finds his fiancee (Cherie Lunghi) and his younger half-brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn) in bed together. He kills Felipe in a duel. Although he is acquitted of the killing by Cabeza, Mendoza spirals into depression. Father Gabriel visits and challenges Mendoza to undertake a suitable penance. Mendoza accompanies the Jesuits on their return journey, dragging a heavy bundle containing his armor and sword. After initially tense moments upon reaching the outskirts of the natives' territory, though they recognize him, the natives embrace a tearful Mendoza and cut away his heavy bundle.

    Father Gabriel's mission is depicted as a place of sanctuary and education for the Guaraní. Moved by the Guaraní's acceptance, Mendoza wishes to help at the mission and Father Gabriel gives him a Bible. In time, Mendoza takes vows and becomes a Jesuit under Father Gabriel and his colleague Father Fielding (Liam Neeson).

    The Jesuit missions were safe, because they were protected under Spanish law. The Treaty of Madrid (in the year 1750) reapportions the land in South America. The land on which the Jesuit missions were located was transferred to the Portuguese, and Portuguese law allows slavery. The Portuguese colonials seek to enslave the natives, and as the independent Jesuit missions might impede this, Papal emissary Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), a former Jesuit priest himself, is sent from the Vatican to survey the missions and decide which, if any, should be allowed to remain.

    Under pressure from both Cabeza and Portuguese Governor, Don Hontar (Ronald Pickup), Cardinal Altamirano is forced to choose between two evils. If he rules in favor of the colonists, the indigenous peoples will become enslaved; if he rules in favour of the missions, the entire Jesuit Order may be condemned by the Portuguese and the European Catholic Church could fracture. Altamirano visits the missions and is amazed at their industry and success, both in converting the Indians and, in some cases, economically.

    At Father Gabriel's mission of San Carlos he tries to explain the reasons behind closing the mission and instructs the Guaraní that they must leave. The Guaraní question his authority, and Father Gabriel and Mendoza, under threat of excommunication, state their intention to defend the mission should the plantation owners and colonists attack. They are, however, divided on how to do this, and they debate how to respond to the impending military attack. Father Gabriel believes that violence is a direct crime against God. Mendoza, however, decides to break his vows to militarily defend the Mission. Against Father Gabriel's wishes, he teaches the natives the European art of war and once more takes up his sword.

    When a joint Portuguese and Spanish force of soldiers attack, the mission is initially defended by Mendoza, Fielding and the Guaraní. They are no match for the military force and Mendoza is shot and fatally wounded. When soldiers enter the mission village, they are slowed by the singing of Father Gabriel and the Guaraní women and children who march in the procession. The soldiers are reluctant to fire at a Mass. In spite of this, the Portuguese commander orders the attack and Father Gabriel, the rest of the priests and most of the Guaraní, including women and children, are gunned down. Only a handful escape into the jungle. Fielding sacrifices himself by killing the Portuguese commander and a few more soldiers before he himself is killed.

    In a final exchange between Cardinal Altamirano and Don Hontar, Hontar laments that what happened was unfortunate but inevitable because "we must work in the world; the world is thus." Altamirano replies, "No, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it."

    Days later, a canoe of young children return to the scene of the Mission massacre and salvage a few belongings. They set off up the river, going deeper into the jungle, with the thought that the events will remain in their memories. A final title declares that Jesuits and others continue to fight for the rights of indigenous people. The text of John 1:5 is displayed: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

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