The Mission Film Guide


The film is set in the region of Northern Argentina, Paraguay, and Southern Brazil in the 1750’s. The Jesuit Order has come to build a series of missions among the Guaraní indians  The Treaty of Madrid, which had been hammered out in 1750 by the Pope, the Spanish and the Portuguese, stipulates that this region, where seven Jesuit missions are operating, will be transferred from the Spanish to the Portuguese in exchange for other territories.  These territorial conflicts were established by the Line of Demarcation created by the pope and agreed upon in the Treaty of Tordesilla.


  • Guaraní natives- played by the Waunana and the Onaní of Colombia
  • Father Gabriel, Jesuit priest played by Jeremy Irons
  • Rodrigo Mendoza- slave trader turned Jesuit missionary (Robert De Niro)
  • Don Cabeza- slave trader, plantation owner
  • Altamirano (“His eminence”) - a cardinal and papal legate (Pope’s representative to this region) sent in 1752 to oversee the transfer of this territory from the Spanish to the Portuguese. 

The Mission- Background

  • 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.

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. 

Some questions to consider when watching the movie:

How is life portrayed in the “Missions”? Outside of it? Which is better? Safer?  How has the mission changed the lives, actions, dress, and thoughts of the Guaraní? Why don't the Guaraní want to go back to the forest?

Does this film portray the Guaraní as having an active role in the development of their history?  Do their kings matter and make big decisions?

Examine power relations as depicted in this movie. How do the church, state, and indigenous peoples interact?

What is the role of music in the life of the Guaraní?

Discuss the evangelizing process (bringing native people to Christianity) as seen in the film.  Do you agree or disagree with the way the Jesuits went about evangelizing the Guarani?


So… would you have stayed with the Guarani and fought of left?

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