Can a film be considered a religious text? Yes: if it openly professes a love for one’s gods and saints, openly proselytizes for the purposes of religious conversion, or maintains a strong interpretation of a written or oral religious text. In a tech-dominated world it is a means of spreading the Word visually. In other words – a modern world where information is more valuable by the second than by the sentence. It is too simple to say that our attention spans are shortening and that the only way we learn is force-fed through television. It is too simple to say that the only way to teach is to show and not tell. It is interesting that in a world with more choice, the options for information transmission have shrunk.
No: a film isn’t a religious text. How can it be? For a film to be successful it has to enrapture; tell a story, but not preach; fulfill character and plot narrative. A successful film has to draw from and reflect back its creation onto its audience – a religious text is instructional and a one-way guide to Salvation and Surrender. Or: can it be up to interpretation? Can a film be slick enough to work as a religious text for visual learners and a narrative for those who choose to see religion as a plot point and not an instruction manual? 1986’s The Mission comes close.
The Mission is a quasi-retelling of the betweenmath of the Treaty of Madrid that realigned Spanish/Portuguese political borders in Central South America at the expense of native peoples homes and livelihoods. In the center of this realignment are Jesuit priests, who have successfully(?) converted a tribe to Christianity bringing with them industry, housing tenure, and service to a higher power. The Jesuit priests, led by Jeremy Irons’ Father Gabriel, and eventually Robert De Niro’s Captain/Father Mendoza, seek to retain a relationship with the native tribe in spite of differing attitudes from the colonizing envoys – the Spanish are laxer than the Portuguese. They (Jesuits) see their purpose as one direct from God, by way of salvation and prosperity. They (envoys) see their purpose as one direct from God, by way of salvation and prosperity.
The issue there is that both sides see themselves as performing God’s Will, and therefore are in the right; they have instructions from their Maker to do His bidding. When constructed through this lens, the vision for this film is simple: while both sides cannot operate in the same space, fighting for God’s approval and ultimate salvation is the point of religion – this is textual and teaching.
But the conflict is not simple. The native tribe has free will; the Jesuits, as shown, have decision-making power over their own fates, too. The Spanish and Portuguese are geographically so distant from the conflict that they expect a string of arm’s-length dignitaries to make decisions on their behalf, naturally straying from the ultimate appointment of divine right to my right. The Mission is instructive, but is more humanistic than religious. Its narrative structure is common and well-executed, and takes into account the actions of humans who believe they are acting in the name of God, but are ultimately acting in self-interest.
Maybe the idea of this film is thematically religious instead. The first two-thirds of The Mission revolve around the penance of Captain Mendoza, who seeks redemption from guilt. This theme is salvation. The final scenes are Fathers Gabriel and Mendoza dying at the wanton hand of a Portuguese armed force. This theme is sacrifice. The final shot of the film is one of a canoe of native children, picking up whatever they can, and gliding down the river. This theme is renaissance – rebirth. The film asks the audience to examine the fate of the devout. It depends on which religion, but in some cases this is not allowed.
The Best Picture for 1986 was Platoon, which is a romantic, and probably right choice. It chronicled the horrors of Vietnam, like 1978’s The Deer Hunter, which won the Best Picture Award, and 1979’s Apocalypse Now, which didn’t. The year’s other nominees – Children of a Lesser God, Room With a View, and Hannah and Her Sisters – are relatively weak contenders and probably could not have won in any other year, either. A coin flip probably decides this winner in a second go-around, but ultimately Platoon wins this rigged bet nine times from ten.