Robert DeNiro, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson play Jesuits who choose to defend a mission helping Native Americans against Spanish and Portuguese depredation in 18th C South America. It is sad and painful to watch. These are good stories to tell. They help reduce Western arrogance about progress and modernity when we see the terrible costs this inflicted on people who probably just wanted to be left alone. All in all, it is quite depressing. The production values are good, as is the acting and music. Recommended.
1. Perhaps the ‘best’ moment when I watched this, was when my Korean girlfriend turned to me in amazement and said, ‘you white people really did this (to the Native Americans)?” Sigh. I guess it helps to have a cultural alien around to see what you are just ‘used’ to. I realized I was so accustomed to the story of the native extermination that it didn’t shock me as much anymore. (Koreans react the same way when they see images on Google of Jim Crow.) I recently read Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse by Jared Diamond, and am now reading the Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson. All three document in detail the savagery of whites to indigenous peoples. But Koreans don’t know this stuff the way westerners do, and they get, rightfully, pretty stunned when they hear about it. Korea has the powerful moral argument that they never invaded anyone, but always got invaded. So their shock isn’t a pretense.
2. DeNiro should stick to strong, dynamic characters. His 10 minute turn as the maruader was more fascinating and believable than his role in the rest of the film as a do-gooding Jesuit. I just didn’t believe it. But his ferocious slaver was pretty frightening, especially on horseback, where he seemed to embody the brutal Spanish colonization and rapine of the New World.
3. It was nice to see the Catholic Church portrayed as real, morally mixed institution. I say this not out of personal loyalty, but because filmic portrayals are usually silly (DaVinci Code, End of Days), or wildly ahistorical (Kingdom of Heaven), or mythological (Omen, Exorcist). The usual flim-flam about conspiracies or the end-times are not present, so the Church looks like it probably was – a large, but troubled institution, trying to survive in the world of the rising and powerful nation-state, faced with difficult choices and populated with believers struggling to know what was right. The Jesuits in the film are genuinely concerned about the fate of the locals, at the same time they are tragically erasing their religious traditions. The papal envoy is torn about how the Church will thread its way in this difficult era. The Church wasn’t morally defined from the start of the picture, but filled with the struggle of everyday politics, and you genuinely hope the envoy will make the right decision. Paul Johnson noted how on the frontiers of the New World, it was usually clerics who restrained the worst savageries of the whites. Hopefully they ameliorated the worst, but all in all, it is still a pretty sad showing.
4. The story is disappointingly eurocentric. The natives are foils for the struggle between the Church and the Spanish and Portugese on the frontier. We learn little about them other than their reduction before Western power. I imagine European encroachment was the primary indigenous fear in the centuries after Columbus, so its not the filmmaker’s fault, but still it is sad to see. In this I give credit to Mel Gibson in Apocalypto. I can’t think of any other major film about indigenous peoples that does not involve their interaction with white colonizers. Even intelligent and sympathetic movies like Last of the Mohicans or Dancing with Wolves are filled with white characters – presumably to give western audiences an anchor within the film. But Gibson tried to make a movie about a wholly lost culture on its own terms. You may have hated his vision, but its originality is undeniable.
5. It is also sad to see that the heroes of the film are also destroying the indigenes in their own way – call it ‘culture stripping’ – but never realize it. Every time I read about some tribe in Indonesia or the Amazon that is ‘discovered,’ there is always an adjacent story about some Christian group that has dispatched a missionary to them immediately. Why must we do this? Can’t we leave this people alone? Monotheism seems to have a built-in drive that animists, ‘pagans,’ etc. need the real faith. What if these people don’t really want this? Do we have to bowl over their fragile local culture and stories with the full-intensity of modern theology immediately? I am sure if we encounter extra-terrestrials, some TV preacher will tell us we need to christianize them too. The New World would be a far more interesting cultural space if the pre-columbian peoples had survived with greater integrity