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The Mission: The Film and Its Music
Elizabeth F. Barkley
Foothill College
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At the beginning of every academic term, I ask myself whether having students watch and discuss Robert Bolt and Roland Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission is worth the 4 hours of class time it takes. Then I recall the somber hush that invariably accompanies the film’s closing credits—the kind of quiet that indicates something deeply meaningful has occurred—and I schedule it once again, because I use the film and its music as a catalyst for discussion of general historical themes.

The Mission is loosely based on events that occurred in the borderlands of present-day Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil around 1750. It focuses on conflicts between the Guarani Indians, the Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments, the Roman Catholic Church, and Jesuit missionaries. Ennio Morricone, the Italian composer of the film score, uses music to enhance the depth and meaning of the conflicts. Since world history is not the main focus of my course (Musics of Multicultural America), I prepare students for the film by distributing a handout that provides a brief overview of the historical context.

I show the film in four segments, following each segment with a discussion period in which I use a collaborative learning technique known as “Think-Pair-Share.” I pose the question(s), give students a few minutes to think about a response, then ask students to share their responses with a partner. We then move to a whole-class discussion. Giving students time to think about their responses and rehearse them with another student before “going public” in the whole class increases participation and the effectiveness of the full class discussion. I use the full discussion to introduce any information students may have missed and to explain further the musical themes. There are many powerful images throughout the film that generate good discussion prompts. Although I vary the questions from term to term, below are examples of film cut-off points and questions I’ve used in the past.

Film Segment 1: 0-43 minutes
(Viewing Time, 45 minutes)

The film opens with a close-up of an emissary of the Catholic Church dictating a letter to the pope in Rome. The emissary explains how the missions in the areas surrounding the colonial town of Asunción are now gone and all his priests are dead, leaving the Indians “free once again to be enslaved.” It then flashes back, beginning with the event that is the catalyst for the remainder of the film: a priest bound to a cross floating down a river and over a huge waterfall. In response to the martyrdom, the Jesuit missionary Father Gabriel climbs the steep cliffs to meet with the Indians. Earning their trust (through music), he works with the Indians to build San Carlos, the latest in a group of missions established to convert the Indians to Christianity and provide them with a protected refuge from Spanish and Portuguese slavers. In nearby Asunción, the slaver Mendoza kills his younger brother in a fight over a woman and becomes suicidal. Father Gabriel challenges Mendoza to help the Jesuits build San Carlos as penance. Mendoza straps to his back a heavy bag and makes the journey with the Jesuits up the cliffs. Although the Guarani greet the Jesuits warmly, they recognize and want to kill Mendoza. Father Gabriel talks to the Indians who then cut the ropes binding the bag to Mendoza’s back, thus forgiving Mendoza.

Sample Discussion Questions:
Why did the Guarani Indians kill the first priest, and why through ‘crucifixion?’ How does Father Gabriel earn the acceptance of the Guarani? What is it that Mendoza straps to his back and what does it represent? Why are the Indians laughing as Mendoza cries in the last scene, and why is this significant?

I then demonstrate and help students to understand the significance of Theme 1: Father Gabriel’s Theme.

Theme 1: Father Gabriel’s Oboe Solo (Track 1 on the film score CD)

This musical theme is introduced when Father Gabriel first attempts to meet with the Guarani. We see the Guarani hidden behind trees, watching Father Gabriel warily but mesmerized by the music. This theme is interesting on several levels. First, the nasal, focused timbre of the European oboe is used to contrast with the diffused, airier timbre of the “Indian flute.” Also, the melody begins with a Baroque ornament called a circulo mezzo. This gives the theme a musical sense of time and place and also symbolizes the struggles of the Jesuits who are “caught in the middle” between the Guarani, the Church authorities, and the Spanish and Portuguese governments. Furthermore, the melodic contour is terraced upward, contrasting with indigenous characteristics in which melodies are predominantly terraced downward. The Chief becomes increasingly anxious as the melody ascends, as though in violation of the world order. He steps out of the forest, grabs the oboe, and breaks it as the melody reaches its highest point. When the Chief’s musically sensitive son takes the oboe to fix it, Father Gabriel is “accepted” by the Guarani. This theme reappears throughout the film.

Film Segment 2: 43-1:05 minutes
(Viewing Time, 22 minutes)

I review Theme 1 and introduce Themes 2 and 3 (see below), asking students to pay attention to how these themes are used in Segment 2. For example, at the opening of Segment 2, Theme 1 is played in the background as we watch the Jesuits work with the Guarani to build the mission. Some students notice that it is now played on an “Indian flute,” and that it is soon joined by Theme 2 “Vitta Nostra.” Mendoza finds peace with the Indians and asks to become a priest. The Catholic Church, under pressure to sell mission land to the Portuguese, sends an emissary to determine the fate of the missions. The emissary holds a trial in which he hears testimony from both the Jesuits and the Spanish and Portuguese governments to help him decide on the missions’ future. Part of Father Gabriel’s evidence is a young Guarani boy singing Theme 3, Ave Maria. The emissary decides to visit the missions before making a final decision.

Sample Discussion Questions:
Why does Mendoza refuse to participate in the Guarnani’s killing of the pig? What does the trial say about the views of the colonists towards indigenous peoples? Compare and contrast the actions of Father Gabriel and Mendoza at the trial.

I follow with a more in-depth explanation of the use of the themes.

Theme 2: Vita Nostra (Track 7 on the film score CD)
This theme consists of the phrase “Vita Nostra” (”Our Life”) chanted by choirs accompanied by “Indian” flutes and drums. The phrase contains only four notes, imitating indigenous scales and harmonic practices. The theme represents the empowerment of the Guarani and is heard as they build the mission that is their refuge from slavery.

Theme 3: Ave Maria (Track 4 on the film score CD)
The hymn Ave Maria (Hail Mary) is first used at the court hearing. Morricone’s choice of Ave Maria is significant in that the words are those of the angel Gabriel (Father Gabriel’s namesake) as the angel announces to Mary that she is pregnant with the son of God. Catholics often use this prayer to ask Mary to intercede with Christ on their behalf. In the film, Father Gabriel uses the hymn to petition the Church (the “Mother”) to intercede on behalf of the Guarani and preserve the missions so that they have a refuge against the slavers.

Film Segment 3: 1:05-134 minutes
(Viewing Time 40 minutes)

Father Gabriel leads the emissary on a tour of the missions, using the Guarani’s proficiency with European classical music and instrument construction to demonstrate that the Indians are now civilized. He asks the emissary to protect the Indians by maintaining the missions. The emissary ultimately decides to relinquish the missions and orders the Jesuits to leave. Father Gabriel conveys this information to the Guarani chief. Father Gabriel agonizes over the emissary’s order to abandon the missions and turn them over to the Portuguese government. He decides that he will stay with the missions, thus disobeying orders, but he will not fight. A young Guarani boy goes to the river to find Mendoza’s abandoned weapons, retrieves a sword, and pleads silently with him to take the sword and fight on behalf of the Indians. Mendoza accepts the sword. The other Jesuits, under the leadership of Mendoza, decide to fight.

Sample Discussion Questions:
Father Gabriel shows the emissary the scars on the back of a flogged Indian. Why does he do this? And why does the Indian try to keep his back hidden? The Chief, who is now a Christian, questions Father Gabriel on how the emissary can know God’s will. How does this reflect basic Catholic/Protestant conflicts?

I follow with a more in-depth explanation of the use of the themes, as Themes 1, 2, and 3 are interwoven throughout the segment. For example, Father Gabriel has the Indian choirs sing Theme 3: Ave Maria, to greet the emissary each time he visits one of the missions. When the Guarani boy is holding the sword out to Mendoza, urging him to help, Mendoza is torn between his Jesuit vows and his love for the Indians. As he contemplates the sword, the opening of Theme 1 is played on the oboe; when he accepts the sword, it is finished on the “Indian flute.” Theme 2 is heard as the Guarani prepare to fight against the soldiers.

Segment 4: 1:34-2:05 minutes
(Viewing Time ca. 45 minutes)

The Spanish and Portuguese soldiers and the Guarani prepare for and then participate in the fight. At the end of the film, soldiers have burned the missions and killed all of the Jesuits and most of the Guarani. In the final scene, a few surviving Guarani children see a Catholic sacramental cross and a violin in the water. They choose to pick up only the violin and slip back into the forest.

I let the film close through the credits. I find that students need this time to regain their composure, plus the background music intertwines the major themes. Most interestingly, it finishes with a close-up of the emissary’s face as the chorus is chanting “Vitta Nostra,” ending with “Glory be to God….Ha!”

Sample Discussion Questions:
What does the emissary mean when he says, “sometimes a surgeon has to cut off a limb to save the patient”? Do you agree? Had you been one of the Jesuit priests, what would have been your choice? (Since all of the priests died and the missions were destroyed anyway, this often leads to an interesting discussion as to whether love/pacifism or fighting back is more effective.) Compare the response of the soldiers to Ave Maria with the response of the Guarani to Father Gabriel’s initial playing of the theme on the oboe. At the end of the film, what did the surviving children choose to retain from the mission, and why?

I then explain Theme 4.

Theme 4: Miserere
The Miserere (have mercy) is part of the Catholic Mass of the Dead (the Requiem). The Miserere is sung by a single boy soprano—one of the surviving children—as we view the destruction of the mission at the end of the film. It is drawn from the same motif as “Vitta Nostra.” I typically close with two general questions to the whole class. Why does Morricone use the same musical motif for both “Vitta Nostra” and “Miserere”? What do you think Morricone is saying in his final music statement at the end of the credits?


Even without talking about the music, The Mission is a powerful vehicle for prompting discussion regarding a range of historical themes. For example, I ask students to identify the stakeholders and examine the motivations underlying each stakeholder’s choices. I prompt students to uncover the underlying meaning of various scenes and musical themes. Because few students have had experience with musical symbolism, exposure to music used in this way increases the film’s impact. As one student posted in an online discussion, “Seeing The Mission was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had.” Another commented, “I had no idea music without lyrics could convey so much information.” Observing, then analyzing and reflecting upon the film and its music takes time, but students consistently claim that it is time well spent.

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