The Jesuit missionaries who inspired Roland Joffé’s ‘The Mission’

Among the many works of the Society of Jesus in its nearly 500-year history, its missions among the Guarani people of present-day Paraguay and Bolivia remain perhaps its most fabled. Known collectively as the Jesuit Republic or Lost Paradise, the Jesuit missions, or reductions, combined 17th- and 18th-century visions of the kingdom of God with a respect for indigenous culture that infuriated the secular powers that had allowed the Jesuits access to the region in the first place. For a time the Catholic music created by the Guarani transfixed the Christians of Europe. But eventually the Jesuits were expelled for standing up to Spanish and Portuguese slave- and landholders, and the missions collapsed.

The story of a film that became an inspiration to Jesuits and their companions worldwide.

Inspired by research on the reductions by the Jesuits Philip Caraman and C. J. McNaspy, among others, Warner Brothers released a film in 1986 about that shining, tragic moment in Catholic history. For those involved, the making of “The Mission” would unexpectedly recreate elements of the original experience of the Jesuits and the Guarani, and the movie would inspire a new generation of missionaries.

Origin Story

In 1984 “The Killing Fields,” a drama about the Khmer Rouge, debuted to great acclaim. It was Roland Joffé’s feature film debut, and it received seven Oscar nominations, winning three—including to Chris Menges for cinematography and to Jim Clark for editing. Usually, when a project ends the members of the production team go their separate ways. But Joffé and his producing partner, David Puttnam, had something more in mind for their “Killing Fields” team.

“After I’d done ‘The Killing Fields,’” Joffé told America, “I met Robert Bolt and an Italian producer named Fernando Ghia.” Bolt, whose body of work included the screenplays for “Lawrence of Arabia,” “A Man for All Seasons” and “Doctor Zhivago,” had an unproduced stage play about a saintly Jesuit and a former slave owner who is trying to redeem himself in the Jesuit reductions in Paraguay. “He said, ‘I’d always thought this would make a wonderful film.’”

“Poor Robert was a bit of a forgotten man,” Jim Clark wrote in his memoir, Dream Repairman. In 1979 a stroke had paralyzed Bolt’s right side and made it almost impossible for him to speak. “It was very touching [watching him] struggle to find his words,” Joffé remembered. Joffé told Bolt he was interested in adapting the play, with one recommendation: “We’d need to bring the Indians to life.”

With Bolt’s approval, Joffé went in search of an indigenous community that might fit the bill. The Guarani themselves were not an option. “There are very, very few of them,” he explained. “I really wanted to use [them], but they’d been so badly mistreated, so spiritually decimated, there was really no way to make it work.”

Joffé traveled extensively looking for a substitute. Finally, in a remote part of Colombia he found the Waunana, an indigenous community of 300 people. The tribe had some exposure to metropolitan civilization, but not much. “They’d sort of seen the television,” Joffé recalled. “They didn’t really know what a film was, but they sort of got it.”

“I found myself in an oddly similar position” to the Jesuits, he said, “trying to explain to the tribe what the story was about and suggesting maybe we would find a way of working together.”

He also found himself a witness to the kind of systemic threat that the Guarani had experienced. After he explained his proposal to the community, they spent days debating among themselves whether to accept. “I was sitting by the river,” Joffé recalled, “and a little old couple came and sat next to me. The man said the two of them were prepared to come with us right away, but we had to guarantee we would not take any children.”

For those involved, the making of “The Mission” would unexpectedly recreate elements of the original experience of the Jesuits and the Guarani.

This was a condition Joffé could not accept; children would play a key role in the film. “I said, ‘Ah, I’m not sure I can guarantee that,’” he said, and he wondered why they made such a stipulation. In a matter-of-fact tone, the man explained to Joffé, “When you’re finished with us, you’ll kill us. We’re so old it doesn’t matter, but if you take the children, there will be no more tribe.”

Joffé was stunned. “I said, ‘Why would I kill you?’ The man responded, ‘We don’t know, but you always do.’

“That accusation, made without bitterness,” Joffé remembered. “After that, there was no way I could not make the movie.”

Jesuit Casting

Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro were cast as the placid, peace-loving musician Father Gabriel and the former slaver Mendoza, respectively. The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby later described “the self-effacing earnestness” of the actors’ performances. But during filming, Clark worried that Irons was too young. “The priest role was originally conceived by Robert for Alec Guinness,” he wrote. And DeNiro’s acting method made for massive editing challenges. Each take “he would try all sorts of different voices, different deliveries, varying the whole thing somehow.” In the end, Clark wrote, “you don’t edit him, you mine him. You have to create the performance because it varies so much from take to take.”

As Joffé was developing the film he sought counsel from the Jesuit peace activist Daniel Berrigan. “I really felt [that] to understand the psychological and emotional content of what it was to be a Jesuit, someone like Dan Berrigan was going to give me tremendous insight,” he said. They met in Berrigan’s home, “this very simple room,” and as they were talking Joffé had this sudden impulse to invite him to join the crew. “He kind of looked at me as if I’d left my senses,” Joffé remembered. “And to my surprise, he took me up on it.”

Daniel Berrigan served as a consultant: “He and Jeremy spent about three weeks basically closeted together talking about the idea of what it would mean to be a priest.”

Berrigan served as a consultant. “He and Jeremy spent about three weeks basically closeted together talking about the idea of what it would mean to be a priest,” Joffé remembered, “what he would gain by being a priest, what he would be giving up.” Joffé also ended up casting Berrigan in the film as Sebastian, one of the Jesuits working for Father Gabriel.

Berrigan later wrote a book, The Mission: A Film Journal, about the experience of those months in the jungle. In Irons he found “a ready spirit, very supple of mind, a listening being who went away silent and returned curious…. We dwelt a long time on the meaning of faith, which appeared to me as a kind of unexpected intervention, a third party, so to speak, entering an impasse and bringing, if not relief, at least a measure of light and hope.”

Joffé remembered Berrigan’s presence on set with gratitude. “He had an indomitable spirit, a kind of spiritual feistiness that was really engaging,” Joffé explained. “In a way he was an inspiration to my life, just the kind of man that he was, so open and concerned.

Robert DeNiro’s acting method in “The Mission” made for massive editing challenges. 

“I think [he was] a human being who lived the idea that love must come first. And every day of the shoot he proved the purity and elegance of his position. And that was inspirational.”

Berrigan was equally inspired. “The actors (men all) are attempting something audacious,” he wrote, “miming the incandescent spirit of the Jesuits who blazed a path through the eighteenth-century jungle of ignorance, lust, and avarice and who created so splendid a utopia, on behalf of others, that one still gasps for wonderment.” Of Joffé he wrote, “If we [actors] are the film, what of him? Guiding spirit? Bearer of good news, holy and secular? Encourager? Wiper away of tears? Stern exactor? Friend? Father confessor? All and any. Indeed, he appears to me at times as the only authentic Jesuit of us all.”

Improvised Grace

Watching just the opening scene of “The Mission,” the viewer is immediately made aware of the audacity of what Joffé and his team were attempting. Writing in The Los Angeles Times, Sheila Benson described Iguazu Falls, which figures prominently throughout the film, as “the movie’s star.” “I kind of clambered and crawled all over the falls,” Joffé recalled. “There’s something startling and humbling about it, the power that nature had. I really wanted to capture that on film.”

But those falls were thousands of miles south of the film’s main location in Colombia, which meant asking the Waunana to get on airplanes. “When they were going to get on a plane, I asked a woman, ‘Are you afraid?’” Joffé remembered. “She said, ‘No, because we’ve seen you feeding it with butterflies.’ I thought it was kind of wonderful. And really, they understood as much about what we were ‘feeding it’ as I did.”

The film required lots of actual clambering not just for Joffé, but for the cast and crew, including those astonishing scenes in which DeNiro’s Mendoza climbs the falls with his old suit of armor tied to him. “We had to be very careful,” Joffé said, and not just with the falls themselves. “Robert would be crawling around, and there [would be] a nest of scorpions or a snake.”

Robert DeNiro in ‘The Mission’ (photo: Alamy)
Robert DeNiro in ‘The Mission’ (photo: Alamy)

But DeNiro’s capacity for improvisation in those moments also proved a huge gift. “Dragging his bundle through the jungle, he gave us all kinds of things we didn’t expect,” said Joffé.

Surprises and challenges on set “happened all the time,” he noted. For example, the site for the mission “happened to be on the main cocaine route down the Santa Marta River,” which “didn’t go over very well with cocaine dealers because we had army soldiers with us very often.” Working with a go-between to the dealers, Joffé learned that the film crew’s presence would be allowed as long as they and their soldiers left by a certain time each Friday and did not come back until Monday morning.

At one point Joffé noticed that a box he was sitting on had “six or seven coral snakes” beneath it. “They’re the most venomous snakes on earth, and I was sitting on top of them.”

But Joffé found those challenges only added to the shoot. “What we were experiencing and what we were doing was so fused,” he said. “It was kind of like trying to cook a risotto. Everything just fell together in the right flavors.”

Ennio Morricone’s famous compositions for ‘The Mission’ bore little resemblance to the actual music of the Guarani.

Over the course of filming, Joffé and his team struggled with Father Gabriel’s fate. The original script had him dying with his parishioners in the mission church after it is set on fire by the Portuguese soldiers. “Are we to concede, as in the theology of Milton, that evil had best be granted the last word, that the evildoer is essentially more interesting than the virtuous?” Berrigan wrote. In the end, the example of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi led them to a different answer for Gabriel. Berrigan wrote: “He takes in hand his life and the lives of his people and leaves the mission church…confront[ing] the worst and evok[ing] the best in the massed adversaries.”

Berrigan asked whether his character might be able to walk with Gabriel, in keeping with the image of the Jesuits as a bonded community of faith and companionship. Joffé agreed.

The Music of Human Longing

One of the elements for which “The Mission” has become most remembered is its soundtrack by the legendary film composer Ennio Morricone. But in the beginning, according to Joffé, Morricone was reluctant to commit himself. “We’d initially used [Alessandro] Marchello’s Oboe Concerto” for Father Gabriel’s key song, Joffé explained. At a private screening meant to pique Morricone’s interest, “When it was over, he couldn’t speak. He was in tears,” Joffé said. “But then he looked at me and said, ‘Rolando, you don’t need music in this film. I can’t write anything better than Marchello.”

Joffé feared that in showing Morricone the film he had made a huge mistake. But his producing partner Puttnam encouraged him to wait and see. “Three weeks later, I got a phone call,” Joffé recalled. “Rolando! Ennio qui! I’ve got a little tiny idea.” And then, after initially trying to play something on the piano over the phone and becoming dissatisfied, Morricone began to sing the theme for Gabriel’s Oboe Concerto. “My hair stood on end,” said Joffé. “That’s not a tiny little idea,” he told Morricone. “That’s the film.”

Looking back, he reflected on that instantaneous reaction. “I think it has the strangest blend of comfort and loneliness,” Joffé said of Gabriel’s oboe theme. “The two of them work together in a way; it’s both lonely and stark, but also amazingly connected. And I felt that’s what it means to be a human being. We are both those things all the time if we’re honest.”

Morricone’s compositions “were so much more telling than using words,” said Joffé.

“And then we got into the chants, they had a certain joy that I thought really comes at the moment when those two things fuse in human beings. That’s what joy is, when those two elements of loneliness and longing that normally live side by side in us fuse.”

Clark, as the film editor, was initially fearful about Morricone’s work. The two weeks of recording with the London Philharmonic cost 250,000 pounds, he wrote, and for the first week “all we ever heard from them was: ‘Zuuum zuuum, zuuum zuuum, zuuum zuuum.’…There was no tune at all.”

In the second week, as other instruments and choirs were brought in, the crew began to appreciate the layering of sounds Morricone was creating. “After two weeks of recording, we were able to actually hear the score,” Clark wrote. “It was magnificent.”

Morricone’s compositions “were so much more telling than using words,” said Joffé. “Words are poor things compared to the rich panoply of music.”

Before its debut in the United States, “The Mission” won the Palme d’Or, the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

At the same time, as inspiring as Morricone’s compositions were, they bore little resemblance to the actual music of the Guarani, which was almost entirely unknown at the time of filming. The missionary and musicologist Piotr Nawrot, S.V.D., who has spent three decades living in Latin American indigenous communities studying their mission-era music, explained that before 1987, when Western scholars, including the American Jesuit T. Frank Kennedy, discovered an astonishing 5,000 pages of music manuscripts in Bolivia, “The music was lost to us.”

But he went on to clarify: “It was never [lost] to the Indians.” Rather, they prized these documents as sacred texts of their communities. “It was like the Ark for the Jews; no matter where they moved, they took this sacred music. For them this music is not just sound and harmony—this is the history of their sacred salvation.”

Nawrot has nothing but praise for Morricone’s score. “His project is not about making something as close as possible” to the music on the reductions, Nawrot explained, but about recreating in the film’s audience that encounter with the divine that the original music of the Guarani and the Jesuits provided. “His music played the role that the original music played in the first evangelization of the Indians,” Nawrot said. “The soundtrack is totally seductive.”

“The story is quite accurate,” Nawrot noted, “very few exaggerations.” And lacking the original musical texts, “I could not imagine better music for this movie than what Ennio has done. I’m a musicologist, I have lived in Indian communities for more than three decades, and I tell you it is just unbelievable. I have only admiration. I would call Ennio an apostle of the modern time.”

A Fire That Kindles Many Fires

Before its debut in the United States, “The Mission” won the Palme d’Or, the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It went on to receive nominations for seven Oscars, including one to Joffé for best director and to Morricone for best score, and won one for Chris Menges’ astonishing cinematography.

The film never took off at the American box office, making only $17 million in the United States. But Nawrot said it has had a radical impact on Catholic ministry in indigenous communities in South America. “It is not that no one knew about the reductions or knew what was going on,” Nawrot explained. But the movie was “a provocation.” “Suddenly we started to talk again about this,” he said. Not only that, “we wanted to be a part of this…. There was a beauty [to ‘The Mission’] that seduced us. We wanted this story again.”

The film never took off at the American box office. But it has had a radical impact on Catholic ministry.

Nawrot left his native Poland to work and study with the indigenous of South America. Over the years communities allowed him to read and share over 13,000 pages of music from the Jesuit and Franciscan missions. “If you’d like to hear the same [indigenous] Mass a second time you’d have to go to Mass every single day for four months to get it,” he said.

He has also helped encourage these communities in their music. Today, he noted, they are among the most musically proficient people in Bolivia and beyond. “One in four Bolivians in the jungle can read music,” Nawrot said.

And even though the songs of “The Mission” were not actual Guarani compositions, Morricone’s work remains the seed out of which missionary efforts grow. “Today when you go to Bolivia and sing Guarani [reduction songs],” he explained, “quite often we start with Ennio Morricone and then we go to the original, as though he were the father of this. I would say he is one of those human beings that everyone here loves, even if he is unaware of it.”

The same is said of the film and Morricone’s work by many Jesuits. Gabriel’s Oboe is frequently featured at Jesuit institutions during Masses of the Holy Spirit, baccalaureate celebrations, ordinations, funerals and on the feast of St. Ignatius. Today, for many Jesuits that simple melody captures the “strange blend” of consolation and longing at the heart of their vocation and sense of humanity.

Berrigan wrote that the film was “a rare, even unique undertaking. It dares to raise questions both crucial and neglected: how humans choose to live, and for whom, and with what resources; also how they choose to die, and for what vain or dearly purchased cause—the pivot, the vexed, tormented, central question of all.”

Looking back, Joffé said, “For me it was an attempt to touch what lies behind spiritual journeys. I love the idea that the truth is evanescent, difficult to find and may often take opposing points, often for the same reason and the same motivation.

“I describe myself as a wobbly agnostic. And I suppose my sense of the divine is that he speaks through other people, through life. I had Dan Berrigan on the one hand and the Waunana Indians on the other,” he noted. “It makes one ask serious questions about what [life is] and what might we be here for.”

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