Paper on “The Mission”
The mission is a film that came out in 1986 while I was a student in Latin American history and also the director of a non-profit center that conducted research and promoted guest lectures and appearances of speakers who were experts and or actors in the political events occurring in Central America at the time. The work took me to, among other places, Nicaragua, during the time of the rule of a left-wing government, the Sandinistas, who came to power in a civil war that overthrew a dictator in 1979. The US government saw the Sandinista regime as a Soviet/Cuban ally in the hemisphere and sought to overthrow the regime by backing and training armed guerillas, the “Contras,” to overthrow the Sandinista regime. The 1980s were the twilight years of the left Christian movement, The Liberation Theology movement. Many church people, inspired by Liberation Theology, were very involved in Nicaragua at the time. Liberation Theology was defined by its “preferential option for the poor,” and believed Christians had a moral imperative to help the poor in this life to acquire housing, health care, work, and a satisfying life and they agreed with Marxists and socialists that people were poor because of their exploitation and marginalization by the rich. These left Christians formed alliances with Marxists and socialists in Latin America. The Peruvian priest who coined the term “Liberation Theology,” Gustavo Gutierrez, has written one of the best biographies of Bartolomé de las Casas. While in Nicaragua, I met many of these activist Christian types and was interested in their integration of their political practice with their faith. I was raised a Catholic and educated by Jesuits, but I had lost my faith before even getting out of high school and it has never returned. But I did have fond memories of some of the Jesuits who taught me. And so I asked some leftie Christians if a non-believer could participate in their religious practices and they happily agreed. It was by this means that I discovered the principle vehicle for Liberation Theology practice, the “base Christian community.” So here was Bill, a committed atheist, attending Bible reading groups in which participants were asked to read and interpret the Bible in light of the “preferential option for the poor.” It was a very heady time in my life and I may be one of the few non-Christians to have read several of the key theological works written by liberation theologians and I still have fond memories of it. I met some of the best people I have ever known in my life at those “base Christian communities.”
When the film, The Mission, came out I went to see it with some nuns I was working with and we had a brisk discussion of the film afterward over beers and pizza. This film is steeped in its own historical moment, a moment itself part of a modern-day engagement with the Polemics of Possession. The film is really only comprehensible within the background of the Sandinista revolutionary regime in Nicaragua and ongoing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. The Guatemalan connection is obvious to anyone my age, as Guatemala had a brutal dictator at the time who also viewed himself as an evangelical Christian. His regime was conducting literal extermination campaigns against Indians in western Guatemala on the border with Mexico. But Nicaragua and the US political and military presence in the region were also key background components to this film. The two central characters in the film, Father Gabriel and Rodrigo, were representations of an ongoing debate among the Catholic left on the place of armed struggle. The question was, are Christians required to be pacifists or is armed struggle to end an oppressive situation an acceptable Christian practice? The Sandinista regime had several priests in its government and two in particular in the cabinet, Miguel D’Escoto and Ernesto Cardenal, were priests and on opposite ends of this debate. D’Escoto was the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the regime and Cardenal–a world famous poet–was the Minister of Culture. D’Escoto was a confirmed pacifist and Cardenal believed in the legitimacy of armed struggle. Interestingly enough, both men are still alive and D’Escoto has remained a supporter of the Sandinista party and the Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega, while Cardenal has left the party and helped found a new party which wants to “renovate” the Sandinista movement that sees in the current regime a betrayal of the early radical Sandinista movement. “The Mission” is a film completely steeped in the politics of “Liberation Theology” and the political crises and civil wars occurring in Central America at the time. And in this regard, I think it is a beautiful example of the ongoing vibrancy and life of the Polemics of Possession that started with those trouble-making priests in the 16th century.
For the paper, I want you to treat it in a similar fashion as you did the book review. The outlines of how to write a book review are equally applicable to the film. I want to add that some of you wrote quite a bit more than you had to for the book review. So note that I want you to write a 3 and a half to 5 page review of the film in which you can use a size 12 font and double spacing. If you want to write single space and give me more, that is ok, I enjoy reading your writings, but you do not have to. And so I want to see the following things in your review.
1) An opening statement of your thesis
2) A narrative description of the film. This should include reasons the Jesuits were under attack and how these reasons and the politics behind them are depicted in the film. Also I want a brief account of the Pope’s emissary who is there to conduct the investigation into the missions on behalf of the church. He is a conflicted character who is ordered to dissolve the mission, but clearly his heart is not into it. But he has his marching orders.
3) The historical period the film is dealing with and the events it is treating. I will provide you this information below.
4) A statement about what the film is trying to accomplish, what is it saying followed by an analysis of how this relates to the material in this course and the Polemics of Possession.
5) A conclusion that includes a restatement of your thesis.
Expulsion of the Jesuits from Latin America in the 18th Century
The Jesuits were formed in 1540. Newer than the Franciscans or the Dominicans, the Jesuits were the last mendicant order to arrive in Spanish America, in the 1570s. They were formed in Europe to be the “shock troops” for the Pope in the counter-reformation, the theological and ideological struggle with Protestantism. With this as their reason-for-being, they took an oath that pledged loyalty directly to the Pope–thus Father Gabriel reminding Rodrigo that his duty is to “obey”– and were required to undergo the most extensive training in philosophy and theology of all the religious orders. In this regard, it is probably a bit idealistic how easily Rodrigo seems to join the order. While the Jesuits were late arrivers to the New World, they made up for lost time becoming the most powerful of all the religious orders in the Americas. This was in part, at least, due to their reputation for being less corrupt than the other orders by the 17th century, after the rule of Philip II. The power of the Jesuits rested in their dominance of the higher education system of the Indies–their colleges and Universities–where they taught the members of the New World’s ruling class. But perhaps even more so, through their control of Indian missions around the empire that were extremely profitable enterprises in themselves. The film is no doubt highly idealized at times. The issue of slavery is not really dealt with as it should be. In the film, when Gabriel points out that Spanish America, unlike Portuguese Brazil, does not have slavery, he means specifically Indian slavery. Black slavery was of course another matter and alive and well in Spanish America. And there were Jesuit missions that had black slaves, although they were also no doubt “good” priests and missionaries like Father Gabriel. I had a professor who did not like the film because it was not completely historically accurate. I found this criticism to be “tidy minded” to be honest. The film is a work of art and should be judged not on the question of the “accuracy” of the history depicted, but in what it is trying to say. For me, art has its own “truth” and it is not to be measured by representational accuracy alone. I will add, however, that watching it again after several years, I am impressed at just how well the film is historically grounded, even in its idealism.
Again, this film is about Jesuit missions in a disputed border between Spanish controlled territories in today’s Paraguay, Uruguay, and the territory of Portuguese Brazil. The Indians in question are the Guaraní. The Jesuit reducciones, or resettlement and concentration of Indians into new communities, remain the most famous of all the Christianizing projects in Spanish America. By the early 1700s the Jesuits had over 30 Guaraní missions in Paraguay and Uruguay. The priests brought European musical instruments and music scores for use in church services and celebrations. They taught the Guaraní European crafts, training some even as printers to produce religious texts. The missions were equipped with hospitals that included European and local medicine. Some lands on the missions were worked communally, while others were farmed as family plots. Grains and cotton grown communally were stored in warehouses to supply the needs of the communal members who could not farm for themselves, but also to provide seed for the following year, and to ensure a reserve of goods that could be exchanged for European imports. The common lands also included lands for stock raising including cattle, horses, mules, sheep, and oxen. Hides from cattle were shipped down river to Buenos Aires, on their way to Europe. The other major product sold on the market was yerba mate, sold to Buenos Aires and in the Peruvian Andes.
The Jesuits made sure to isolate their missions from colonial settlers and the administrative authorities of the colonial state. Settlers in Paraguay and Uruguay greatly resented this and the removal of large numbers of native Indians from a potential labor pool. By 1732 the missions in Paraguay and Uruguay had Indian populations of over 140,000 under the control of the Jesuits. These missions and the Indians under Jesuit control found themselves increasingly engaged in political disputes. In the early 1630s Guaraní communities came under increasing attack from the bandeirantes, the slave raiding bands from São Paulo, Brazil. The missionaries would look for survivors of these slave-hunting raids and take them to the Missions. They then got permission from the Council of the Indies to arm the Indians. In 1642, for example, a force of 4,000 Guaraní–commanded by the governor of Paraguay– beat back a force of slave raiders and effectively, for the time being, blocked Portuguese expansion into Spanish territory. Jesuit missions thus came to play a role in stabilizing the frontiers of the Spanish Empire. In the 1680s and 1690s there followed a substantial increase in Jesuit controlled communities in the region. The Bourbon desire of state centralization and complete political control soon came into tension with Jesuit military and economic power in the 18th century.
The Jesuits were already distrusted by the Bourbon monarchy owing to their pledge of loyalty to the Pope, and not to the Spanish crown. The dispute between Spain and Portugal over colonial boundaries resulted in the Treaty of Madrid in 1750. In the Treaty, Portugal gave up some of its claims to areas in the Rio de la Plata and Spain renounced some claims to land in today’s Paraguay and Uruguay, where there were seven Jesuit missions with 30,000 Indians. Spain agreed these missions would withdraw from the territory. Resistance by the Jesuits and mission Indians led to open warfare between 1754 and 1756, at which point royal authorities in both Spain and Portugal agreed for the need to expel the Jesuits. The Portuguese expelled the Jesuits in 1759. Spain, you may recall, was engaged in the Seven Years War on the side of the French, while Portugal was an ally of Britain. At the war’s end, Spain lost control of Uruguay for over a decade. The Spanish did not get around to expelling the Jesuits until 1767. The point of this moment, however, is that both Spain under the Bourbons, and Portugal, felt their right to possession in the Americas, and their claims to sovereignty were threatened by the military, cultural, economic, and ideological power of the Jesuits and their control of over 300,000 Indians in missions all around the Spanish Empire. They were thought to constitute a “state within a state” and threatened the power and authority of the crown. The pope, for complex political reasons, allied with the Spanish, French, and Portuguese crowns and agreed to dissolve the Jesuit order. The order would eventually be reinstated but not until 1814 after some major defeats for Napoleon. But that is another class and another topic. That is all. Do your best!