Mission: Red House

June 23-July 6,2005
VOL 124 NO. 24
Mission: Red House
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
West-side neighbors the Redhouse and St. Lucy’s Church intersected briefly Wednesday night, June 15 for a screening of the 1986 epic The Mission.

The film features accomplished actors Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson and includes a bit part for Central New York native Father Dan Berrigan, a real-life Jesuit. Celebrated local activist and St. Lucy’s parishioner Jerry Berrigan, who is also Father Berrigan’s brother, introduced the film.

“This is an opportunity for us at St. Lucy’s Church to come out for a night of entertainment and also to give some exposure to the Redhouse because it’s in our neighborhood,” organizer Buster Melvin said. “I approached them and they were very accommodating.”

The Mission appealed to the St. Lucy’s community because of its Catholic vein, but Melvin also considers it a way to acknowledge the Berrigans.

“Because of the Catholic connection, but also Dan Berrigan, his brother Jerry is a parishioner, so I thought it would make sense to have it….We wanted to honor the Berrigan family as well,” he said.

The Vatican included The Mission among its top 15 films for its religious significance on a list compiled by a papal committee in 1995. It received nominations for seven Oscars, winning one for Chris Menges’ cinematography. The Mission won both the Golden Palm and Technical Grand Prize awards at the Cannes Film Festival.

Father Berrigan has a bit role in the film, portraying Sebastian, a companion of Gabriel, played by Irons.

Jerry Berrigan said that his brother also contributed significantly to the final screenplay.

“He was instrumental in changing the whole ending,” Berrigan said.

According to Berrigan, the film’s final scene, which portrays dual conflicts between one group of Guarani, led by Robert De Niro’s character, Rodrigo Mendoza, who advocates fighting the Portuguese, and another led by Gabriel, who advocates holding a final service. One of the original drafts called for those led by Gabriel to remain within the church. Berrigan asserted that his brother was responsible for suggesting that Gabriel’s troupe should march defiantly out of the church to confront the Portuguese in an act of passive defiance.

“The original script called for the Indians to go into the church and remain there and suffer burning up. And Dan said that wasn’t very positive,” Berrigan said.

The film begins with an image of Christian martyrdom as a Jesuit missionary is tied to a cross and sent over an enormous waterfall. Then Gabriel begins the harrowing trek up the falls to witness to those very same Indians. Once Gabriel has arrived in the region inhabited by the Guarani, he begins playing his wooden recorder even when the natives advance on him menacingly, with bows drawn. One Guarani tribesman seizes the recorder and snaps it in two, but the bridge built between Gabriel and the natives is evident when one picks up the pieces and returns them to the Jesuit.

Mendoza enters the narrative as a mercenary and slaver. When he discovers that his lover has fallen for his brother, he falls into a brooding rage until finally killing his brother.

He then submits to the Jesuits and eventually begins helping Gabriel.

One of the film’s more memorable sequences shows Mendoza climbing over waterfalls and cliffs carrying his armor in a net roped to his back as a penance. After he finally reaches the tribe that he so recently hunted for slave laborers, one of the tribesman cuts the armor from his back and a flood of emotions overwhelms Mendoza. Shortly thereafter, Mendoza joins the Jesuits.

The film abruptly moves from the isolated, idyllic world of the Guarani to the open, political world when the territory housing the missions was transferred from Spain to Portugal. In the 18th century, Spain had anti-slavery laws, but Portugal was very active in the slave trade. (The North American epithet negro, once considered an appropriate synonym for a African American, comes from the Portuguese slave trade.) Because the Jesuits are opposed to slavery and are protecting the Guarani, the Portuguese want the order to leave the area.

In the film, Cardinal Altamirano had been sent by Rome to oversee the desertion of the missions when the territory was transferred to Portuguese hands. Much of the film deals with the cardinal’s agony over the situation as he demands that the missions be shut down and the natives return to their life before the arrival of the Jesuits.

The Guarani refuse to leave, and Gabriel and his troupe refuse to abandon the people they have come to convert. Gabriel and Mendoza diverge radically on what should be done to help the Guarani at this point. While Mendoza and the other Jesuits take up arms to fight the invaders, Gabriel leads the congregation in a song. When flaming arrows rain down on the thatched-roof church, Gabriel leads the congregation out into the open and into the teeth of the assault.

While debating beforehand what they should do, Gabriel challenges Mendoza saying, “If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.”

The Portuguese victory certainly makes the case for might, but the film ends on a note of hope when a surviving Guarani child finds one of the Jesuits’ musical instruments and boards a boat with other surviving children. The instrument symbolizes that the influence of the Jesuits will live on in some form with the Guarani when they resettle.

The narrative has also come full circle. Just as it begins with the martyrdom of a Jesuit priest, it ends with the martyrdom of Gabriel and the converted Guarani. As it begins with the image of Gabriel playing his instrument, it ends with a musical instrument in the hands of the Guarani child.

The film positions the church-as-people as an agent of social justice through resistance even when the church-as-institution fails its own people.

“It’s never happened otherwise, except through the church. Each time there’s been social change, it’s been fostered and urged on by various saints. It’s still going on that way,” Berrigan said.

The Redhouse opened in July 21, 2004. Hosting The Mission was just one more opportunity for the facility to extend a hand to the community, according to co-artistic director Gerard Moses.

“It’s very important. Number one it’s in the community, it’s reaching out into the community,” Moses said.

The Redhouse offers theatre, film, music and fine arts.

For more information on the Redhouse, visit www.theredhouse.org.

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