SUBJECTS — Religions/Christianity; World/SouthAmerica, Paraguay, Brazil;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Redemption; Courage; Brothers; Rebellion;


AGE: 13+; MPAA Rating — PG;

Drama; 1986; 126 minutes; Color. Available from

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TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.

Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


In 17th and 18th century South America, various religious orders established missions to convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity, to “civilize” them, and to provide a sanctuary from slavery. The most successful of these missions were run by the Jesuits for the Guaraní Indians. In about 1752, the Church and the Spanish Crown ordered the missions disbanded. The Guaraní, led by dissident Jesuits, refused to abide by the order and rose in a short-lived rebellion. This film tells a fictional story of the revolt.


Selected Awards:

1986 Cannes Film Festival: Golden Palm (Joffe), Technical Grand Prize (Joffe); 1987 Golden Globe Awards: Best Original Score, Best Screenplay; 1987 Academy Awards: Best Cinematography; 1987 British Awards: Best Supporting Actor: Ray McAnally, Best Editing, Best Score; 1998 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Film Editing; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Music; 1987 British Academy Awards Nominations: Best Film, Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects; 1987 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Motion Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Irons).


Featured Actors:

Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Liam Neeson.



Roland Joffe.


“The Mission” will introduce Latin America in the 17th and 18th centuries, the appalling mistreatment of the indigenous peoples by the Spanish and Portuguese settlers, the missionary efforts of the Catholic Church, the Jesuits, and a unique experiment in the creation of a utopia. The film also explores important issues of redemption and courage.


MODERATE. One brother kills another in a jealous rage over a woman. There is a raid by slavers on an Indian encampment and a battle. These show only a moderate amount of gore. The Guaraní Indians wear little clothing and the breasts of women and girls are frequently shown in an innocent, non-suggestive manner.

While the film seeks to show the flavor of the times, there are some departures from historical accuracy. Contrary to what is shown in the film, none of the Guaraní were permitted to enter the Jesuit Order at the time of the missions.


Describe the amazing history of the Jesuit Missions in South America. See the Helpful Background section. Then provide some other facts about the Jesuit order. Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question.


For more than 150 years, from 1610 to 1768, the Jesuits maintained missions among the Guaraní Indians of the Upper Rio de la Plata Region of what is now Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. There were eventually 30 missions with 140,000 to 180,000 inhabitants. The governance of the missions followed Spanish statutes of the time which required that the Indians be brought out of the forest into villages (called reduciones). The obligations of the Indians and community life were set out in detail in the legislation. Of all the missionaries sent to the New World by Spain and the Catholic Church, the Jesuits were the most successful in making these regulations work. The missions grew in wealth and power and became “a Jesuit state.”

As shown in the film, the Jesuits’ initial foothold among the Guaraní was gained through music. The Jesuits would attract Indians by singing religious hymns. Music was also key to the long term success of the missions. Before the Jesuits came, the Guaraní did not live in permanent settlements. Most of their food came from hunting and gathering, although they practiced some primitive agriculture. They were not inclined to the hard manual labor of a settled agricultural life-style. The Jesuits found, however, that if a band of musicians played as the Guaraní marched to the fields and while they worked, the Guaraní would perform quite well.

The Guaraní were talented musicians and artisans. Without training, they would sing complex harmonies. With training they could play European instruments such as violins and trumpets. In addition, they could make these musical instruments from samples provided by the missionaries. Music was a part of each stage of the day in the Guaraní missions. It was especially stressed in church services.

The missions were communal enterprises in which most of the wealth was owned in common. Critics called it “theocratical communism.” There were very few Jesuits, usually two in each mission. The internal governance was nominally by elected inhabitants of the missions. However, all real power was in the hands of the Jesuits who believed that the Indians were not intelligent, as the Jesuits understood the term.

The Jesuits effectively isolated the Guaraní from most aspects of European culture. The priests learned the Guaraní languages and did not permit the Indians to learn Spanish or Portuguese. When it was necessary for European traders to come to the Missions, they were kept apart from all but a few of the Indians. If the Europeans stayed overnight, they slept in a separate house, under armed guard. Non-Jesuit Europeans were not permitted to stay at the missions more than three days.

The missions were intended to be a sanctuary for the Guaraní from which they could not be seized by slavers. But the slavers would raid the missions and, over time, tens of thousands of Guarani were lost in this manner. As the pressure from the slave traders increased, the Jesuits obtained permission from the Spanish Crown to arm the mission Indians and maintain a militia. The Guaraní were effective fighters. Under Jesuit leadership, they established a sophisticated military with strong forts and good communications. The Jesuit-Guaraní militias were enlisted by the Spanish King to fight the Portuguese but later, when Spanish interests opposed those of the missions, there was fighting between the Spanish and the militias. In fact, the Jesuit-Guaraní militias repeatedly defeated the Spanish, the Portuguese and large armies of slave traders. In the end, the Spanish and Portuguese fielded a large enough army to overcome the militias, forcing the missions to retreat into areas further removed from “civilization.” The coup de grace came when the Jesuits were banished from Latin America, first from the Portuguese possessions and then from the Spanish. The last Jesuit left the region in 1768 and the missions were soon destroyed. The Guaraní who escaped the slavers retreated back into the forest.

The Guaraní Missions of the Society of Jesus created the only successful long term, large scale experiment in communism of which these authors are aware. It is clear that the circumstances were unique. The Jesuit priests, the de facto rulers of the missions, were not interested in personal gain or advancement. The Guaraní were not “civilized” and had not developed the acquisitiveness and ambition which characterize European society. Sharing physical possessions with the group was a value in traditional Guaraní society. The Guaraní were also under constant threat from the slave traders outside the missions. They therefore had a large incentive to make their new communities work.

However, the missions radically changed the native culture. Given the conquest of South America by the Europeans, the Jesuit missions were a much better alternative than slavery. Leaving aside the issue of whether or not it was a benefit to the Indians to be inducted into the Christian religion, the rule of the missionaries was benevolent. They kept families together, preserved the native language, contributed the rich traditions of Western liturgical music, permitted the Guaraní to keep the fruits of their labor, and avoided the exploitation and early death that was the fate of the vast majority of the Guaraní who were enslaved. As shown in the film, there was constant friction between the Jesuits, seeking to protect the Guaraní, and the colonists, who sought to destroy the missions and enslave the Indians.

The competition between Portugal and Spain for land to the West of Europe goes back to 1493, one year after Columbus’ fateful voyage west across the Atlantic. At that time, Spain and Portugal, two Catholic nations, were the foremost maritime nations of the Western World. In an effort to prevent war between the two countries, in 1493 Pope Alexander VI set a Line of Demarcation which ran from north to south about 350 miles (563 kilometers) west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. Spain was permitted to claim land to the west of the line. Portugal could claim land to the east. The South American mainland, which had not yet been discovered by Europeans, was barely touched by the line. Neither nation found this settlement satisfactory. Therefore, in the next year Spain and Portugal moved the line west to a point about 1,295 miles (2,084 kilometers) west of the Cape Verde Islands, in the Treaty of Tordesillas. This agreement supported Portugal’s claim to territory that is now eastern Brazil. Over time, Portuguese settlers and its military penetrated the line and established settlements deep within territory that was nominally ruled by Spain. The Treaty of Madrid of 1750 established the doctrine of “Uti Posseditis” which confirmed that the country whose nationals possessed the ground would have sovereignty. This legitimized the expansion of Portuguese control. While the treaty was later annulled, the same principles were embodied in ensuing treaties.

The Society of Jesus, called the Jesuits, was founded in 1514 and confirmed by the Pope in 1540. Its goal was to promote missions at home and overseas. The Jesuits played an important role in stopping the spread of Protestantism in Europe, becoming the spearhead of the Counter Reformation. They also played crucial roles in Catholic missions in Asia, the Americas and Africa. In addition, the Jesuits have long been leaders in the field of education.

The Jesuits have been one of the most successful, powerful and controversial orders of the Catholic Church. The origins of their success lay in the manner in which they recruited and trained their members and in the centralized organization of the order. Historically, only men of sound judgment, good character, energy and perfect health were admitted to the order. Candidates who were wealthy or who came from aristocratic backgrounds were encouraged. The Jesuits paid more attention to training than other religious orders. Novices underwent two years of probation. If a candidate was judged suitable for the priesthood, twelve years of theoretical studies followed. If successful, he was then ordained as a priest and entered a new period of probation, after which the candidate became a Co-adjutores espirituales. The elite could aspire to become the Professi who constituted the actual order. The Professi would take the additional and famous vow of Jesuits to always be prepared for duty in the service of the Pope. In modern times, there has been some modification of the traditional methods of training and inducting Jesuits, but it is still rigorous.

The order imposes rigid control over the actions of its members. At the top is the Father General, elected for life. Jesuits in a certain district constitute a Province under a Provincial. A number of advisers (Consultores) advise him on all important questions and, at the same time, watch his conduct and report on it to Rome. Similar controls operate on every level of the Jesuit hierarchy. Every third year Provincial Congregations are called to elect a representative to be sent to the General Congregation in Rome. They meet in Rome as a Congregatio Procuratorum under the chairmanship of the Father General.

The Jesuits became controversial because they did not confine themselves to monasteries or even to educational, missionary or charitable works. They also sought political power and developed doctrines that permitted them to deceive and to bend moral rules when the ends were deemed to justify the means. The Jesuits combined these doctrines with secrecy and absolute unquestioning obedience to their superiors. Their actions have not always been as clearly beneficial as they were with the Guaraní. This has tarnished and diminished the positive accomplishments of the order, and led many in the church and in society in general to oppose them.

The Jesuits’ interest in political power at times brought them into conflict with local and national political interests. Jesuits have been expelled or excluded from various countries at various times. For example they were expelled from Portugal in 1759, suppressed in France in 1764, and expelled from Spain and its colonies in 1767. In 1773, the order was dissolved by the Pope but it survived informally in Protestant and Orthodox areas such as Germany and Russia in which the Jesuits’ leadership in education was valued. The Society of Jesus was reestablished by the Pope in 1814. But history repeated itself and the society was soon subject to recurrent suppression and expulsion in various countries, including those that had harbored Jesuits during the Papal suppression.

In the United States, the Society of Jesus is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, it has not been immune from criticism. In 1816, two years after the order was reestablished, former President John Adams, wrote to his old friend, former President Thomas Jefferson, that:

I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits. Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gypsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and schoolmasters? If there ever was a body of men who merited eternal damnation on earth and in hell, it is this Society of Loyola’s. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum ….

Jefferson replied: “Like you, I disapprove of the restoration of the Jesuits, for it means a step backwards from light into darkness ….” In the United States, the Jesuits have largely confined themselves to educational, charitable and missionary activities.

There are presently 90 Jesuit colleges or Universities in 27 countries; 28 of them are in the United States. In the United States, most Jesuit colleges and universities are primarily staffed by lay people and operate in much the same manner as other colleges and universities. There are also 430 Jesuit high schools in 55 countries. In modern times, the Society of Jesus, like many other religious orders, has suffered from a decline in the number of young men seeking a religious vocation. The Jesuits have responded by directing some of their ministry toward social change and by loosening some of the older hierarchical restrictions on young recruits. There are presently between three and four thousand Jesuit Priests, Scholastics and Brothers in the United States.


1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


2. How does the concept of music as the voice of God (see Amadeus) relate to the story of the Guaraní missions?


3. Why didn’t the Guaraní wear more clothing?


4. Do you think that the Jesuits were right in establishing the missions but keeping the real power in their own hands?


5. Despite the Guaraní’s abilities in music and their ability to copy complicated European musical instruments without training, the Jesuits of the missions had a low opinion of the intelligence of the Indians. [See Berrigan, at pg. 81.] What does this say about the Jesuits’ understanding of the term “intelligence”?


6. If Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson thought that the Jesuits were dangerous, why didn’t the United States expel the Jesuits and suppress the order as happened in many countries in Europe? Should the Jesuits be suppressed in the United States?



1. Was the character Mendoza able to transcend his violent nature?


2. Did the character Mendoza adequately atone for killing his brother?


3. When Mendoza was climbing the falls tied to a large and ungainly bundle of weapons, what did the bundle represent? What is the symbolism of how he was finally relieved of the bundle?


4. Describe the moral growth of Mendoza and the change in his character through the course of the story.



5. What was the most courageous act in this story? Was it Father Gabriel facing the European army without offering resistance? Was it Mendoza and the Indians opposing the European army? Was it the decision of Father Gabriel and the other Jesuits, at the beginning of the film, to go back to the Indians and try again after missionaries who had come before them had been murdered? Was it Mendoza’s decision to face his own guilt for murdering his brother?



6. In their different reactions to the destruction of the mission, which character acted correctly, Mendoza, Father Gabriel or the Jesuits who obeyed their orders by packing up and going home?


7. Both the Church and the government felt that the missions should be disbanded. What justification did the Indians and the dissident Jesuits have in resisting that decision?



8. Was Mendoza’s brother wrong in taking up with Mendoza’s woman?


9. When faced with this kind of conflict, how should the brothers have resolved it?


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)


1. Give examples of how Mendoza first violated and then complied with this Pillar?.


1. Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With Any Film that is a Work of Fiction;


2. Locate the Rio de la Plata on a map and show its watershed;


3. Compare the Guaraní Missions to the Utopia of Sir Thomas More, the Republic of Plato, and the communist society envisioned by Karl Marx;


4. Stage a mock debate between Father Gabriel and Mendoza about the best course of action in the face of the order to leave the mission.


CCSS Anchors Here.


Bridges to Reading Here.



In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • The Power and Secret of the Jesuits by René Fülöp-Miller, translated by F.S. Flint and D.T. Tait, 1930, The Viking Press, New York, pages 283 – 302 focus on the Guaraní Missions; Adams and Jefferson quotes from page 390;
  • The Expulsion of the Jesuits from Latin America Edited by Magnus Mörner, 1965, Alfred A. Knopf, New York;
  • The Jesuits: A History by David Mitchell, 1981, Franklin Watts, New York;
  • The Mission: A Film Journal by Daniel Berrigan, S.J., Harper & Row, Publishers, San Francisco 1986.

A book that we have not yet read which has been recommended to us as a resource is: Phillip Caraman, S.J., The Lost Paradise: The Jesuit Republic in South America.

This Learning Guide was last updated on December 16, 2009.

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