Two men, Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons, playing the roles of Rodrigo and a Jesuit father, deep in the Amazon jungles, during the 1750s, struggling with what is right and wrong. Rodrigo is a mercenary, slave trader in violation of Spanish law, and he has murdered his own beloved younger brother in a duel so that the law of man cannot punish him. However, he is punishing himself. He has given up the will to live and for six months has just languished in a room by himself. It is secular love and jealousy that has caused his pain. We have seen them displayed in the scenes prior to his murdering of his brother. The joyous love of the carnival, the dark and ominous jealousy that inflames Rodrigo when the woman he loves prefers his brother over him. The message is that secular love, without spiritual love, can easily turn bitter, jealous, dangerous, and narcissistic. The Jesuit fathers have a spiritual love that allows them to even die, if need be, as they strive to relate charitably toward others. We have already seen how the Jesuit scaled the dangerous wall of rock and went into the jungle knowing that his fate might well be the same as the last father who was martyred. We see him reach out to the natives on their terms through music because he knows that humans, all humans, speak the universal language of music. We see how these two men have approached life very differently and now the Jesuit father approaches Rodrigo and angers him, comes close to mocking him as a way of stirring him into action. Once he has his attention, the Jesuit father challenges him to do a penance demanding enough to bring him out of his self-imposed hell.
The Jesuit takes Rodrigo to his mission of San Carlos, above the falls, where he has brought God to the natives---the same natives that killed the other missionary who came to them. Rodrigo has to drag all of his swords and armaments with him on the journey up the steep and slippery mountain to the mission. He is exhausted when they finally arrive. These are the same natives who he killed and enslaved as a slave trader. They cut him loose from his bundle of arms and throw them over the edge to the stream far below. Rodrigo weeps, probably for the first time in his life, he weeps. He has been rescued from his own sins by those who he has sinned against and he is reborn. He takes up life amongst the natives, a life of work, a life of struggle, a life of joy in the beautiful natural communal world of the mission. It is a world of socialist order, of the musketeers (all for one and one for all), of the early Christians, of worker-ownership (explore the ideas built into the Mondragon system). He is at peace. The Jesuit father gives him the bible to study and he reads from 1Coninthians, Chapter 13:
Thought I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly: but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
(This is one of the most influential of all the chapters in the Bible. In the movie North Dallas Forty the Nick Nolte character quotes this passage when he finally realizes it is time to grow up. The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman made a movie entitled Through a Glass Darkly.)
We hear Rodrigo quoting these words and the words help him move closer to God and he becomes a Jesuit father and pledges total obedience to God and to his superiors.
This obedience is first put to the test when he calls a powerful Spanish landowner a liar, which he was, and then has to apologize. The final test of his obedience is when he is told to leave the Mission of San Carlos because it was to be destroyed and he fails this test of obedience…or does he? What happens when you are called to be obedient in a way that violates your calling to be charitable? The Jesuit fathers elect to stay with the natives. Their leader refuses to take up arms to protect them, trusting instead that might does not make right, even if it is all powerful. Rodrigo and the other Jesuits take up arms and fight with the natives against the government troops---and all of them die.
So what does all of this add up to? The movie has several themes; however, they all converge on the gospel message from Corinthians. More important than faith or hope is charity. Charity is action, behavior that is gentle and loving and giving. As the Catholic authority says towards the end of the movie when the secular authorities indicate that he did what he had to do because we must live in the world, and the world is thus, he responds by saying: "No, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it." Earlier he mused as to whether the natives might not have been better off if the Europeans had never come to the New World.
The Jesuits had created wonderful missions where the natives were safe and could labor in peace and harmony. These enclaves were very productive and 90% of the profits went back to the natives who shared it equally amongst themselves. (Which is the natural thing for them to do. If you examine the natives who have not been corrupted by civilization, who live in small tribal compounds, they share whatever they have communally---charitably.) The missions were very successful, and that is why the secular powers wanted them destroyed. They were too competitive. They wanted to use the natives as their own workers, to exploit them and gain riches in this way. Since the Jesuits were doing these good works, if the missions were not closed down the threat was that the entire Jesuit order would be destroyed. In short, the choice was a difficult one. Do you do evil today knowing that it will produce greater good in the future?
Fortunately, few of us will ever have to make such a horrific choice on such a grand scale as this. However, on a smaller but also very important level you will definitely have to make choices of a comparable nature. Do you continue to smoke cigarettes knowing it will eventually kill you but right now you feel better? Do you do what the boss tells you to do even though you know it can be damaging to others? What price do you place on your body and soul? How cheaply are you selling out?
Some people watch this gloriously beautiful movie that ends in tragedy and are depressed. Why not have a nice happy Hollywood ending where the natives survive? Because this is based on real life events and the missions did not survive. Capitalism and greed won out over charity and justice for all. It still is today! But, it is only that way in your life if you let it be. You can take control of your life, you can live charitably, you can be a loving person no matter how challenging the circumstances might be. One of the greatest friends in my life was someone who was in a concentration camp during World War II and in the depth of darkness he reached out to others with love and charity. So don't tell me you can't do it! We all can! Like the Donovan song, you may have to take it slowly, but you can move step by step toward an ever more charitable life. Sure, temptations will come along on your path, but, 1Corinthians 10:13 also has something to say about that:
There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.
All the Jesuit fathers were tempted to leave the Mission and not be excommunicated. However, they overcame their temptations and stayed on to do whatever they felt they could do to help those who they loved.
Therefore, when I watch the movie, even the wistfully sad ending, I am uplifted, I am inspired by the movie to work to make this a better world, I am inspired to be more charitable toward others. This is the message of the movie just as it is the message of the apostle Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians.