The Absurd Mission
In his seminal work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus quotes the Dostoevsky character Kirilov who ruminates on the idea that upon dying Christ “did not find himself in Paradise” and that his life, suffering and torture “had been useless” (Camus 98). Kirilov ponders a Christ who lived “in the midst of falsehood and [died] for a falsehood” (98). Camus commentates that Jesus in this situation is “the complete man” since he is in “the most absurd condition” (98). Three men, from the 1750s living in the south American region near Iguazu Falls, found themselves in a similar situation, where they devoted and gave their lives to helping the Guarani natives, knowing full well they would receive no recompense and perhaps knowing their work would be useless. From the idea of men working consciously knowing their labors could be fruitless, to the moment the Guarani king, in exasperation, realizes the absurdity of God changing his mind, The Mission demonstrates what living an existentially absurd life may look like. To begin, one must ask: what is absurdism?
One can almost hear a boxing match announcer, with a loud, reverberating voice exclaim, “in the left corner, riled up, energized and ready to rumble, we have The Human Condition, seeking to secure and explain the meaning of human existence. And in the right corner …” The announcer falls silent as there is no opponent. This paradox of humanity’s “impulse to ask ultimate questions and the impossibility of achieving any adequate answer” is what Camus calls “the absurd” (Aronson). As a result of this bizarre position, the human comes to feel “weariness, anxiety, strangeness, nausea, and horror in the face of one’s mortality” (Pölzler). What is one to do in this illogical predicament? Camus declares there are three options: suicide, hope, or revolt. Immediate escape from this paradox in the form of suicide is at least understandable. Hope or taking a “leap” is simply delaying the inevitable, in that the human seeks rational meaning in God or some transcendence but will ultimately never secure it (Camus 43). The third option encapsulates the heart of absurdism. Revolt is to accept the meaninglessness. Revolt is
to work and create 'for nothing', to sculpture in clay, to know that one's creation has no future, to see one's work destroyed in a day while being aware that, fundamentally, this has no more importance than building for centuries - this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions” (103).
Much like Sisyphus pushing a rock uphill, to have that effort support nothing, and to perform the task again, happily, is to live the absurd; to be present and live despite meaninglessness. The 1986 film entitled The Mission features hallmarks of Camus’ absurdist philsophy.
The Mission is a historically factual movie occuring in the 1750s near modern-day Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. It follows the fate of a Jesuit priest named Father Gabriel who climbs Iguazu Falls to convert the Guarani to Christianity after they tie a Jesuit missionary to a wooden cross and send him down the falls, to his death. While working with the Guarani, Father Gabriel encounters a Spanish mercenary named Rodrigo Mendoza, who enslaved and murdered many Guarani. Mendoza descends the falls with many slaves. Upon returning to the city, his fiancé, Carlotta, breaks off their engagement in order to be with Mendoza’s brother. After catching his brother and former fiancé in bed, Mendoza kills his brother in a jealous outrage. Starving himself out of depression, Mendoza is convinced by Father Gabriel to join him as a form of penance. Mendoza climbs the falls and begins working to establish the mission. The mission becomes successful in a peaceful Guarani community. However, the Treaty of Madrid is signed, which demands that the Spanish crown take control of the mission’s land. The mission faces two options: leave the land or fight the Spanish army. Father Gabriel believes fighting goes against the principles of Christianity and decides to remain peaceful, even if it means death Mendoza fights. They both die along with many others and the surviving Guarani children escape into the jungles while their parents are enslaved.
Two main illustrations of absurdism in The Mission are: first, the nature of the Jesuits’ work “for nothing,” and second, the “strangeness” the Guarani king experiences when he realizes God had changed his mind and he wonders if the Jesuits are the people who they claim to be (Camus 103, 20).
No part of the movie better exemplifies the nature of absurdism than when Mendoza takes his vows to become a Jesuit. He explicitly promises “to labor and not count the cost and serve with no reward save the doing of [God’s] will” (The Mission 0:49:03- 0:51:00). While Mendoza may seemingly be taking a leap of faith, he is nonetheless conscious that he will work and create with no expectation of remuneration. To quote Camus again, “to work and create 'for nothing' … to know that one's creation has no future, to see one's work destroyed in a day while being aware that” (Camus 103). Ultimately, the work of the Jesuits amounts to nothing. All their labor and service and even their lives are destroyed in a day. After being shot multiple times, Mendoza, in a final effort to seek meaning or even witness a miracle, struggles to remain alive to witness the fate of Father Gabriel. But even the devout Father, along with dozens of Guarani are mowed down by musket fire (1:55:19-1:56:45). One can’t help but wonder if this image of Mendoza dying is what Kirilov imagined when Christ entered paradise realizing he died for a “falsehood” (Camus 98).
The other illustration of the absurd is when the Catholic Cardinal Altamirano, who is deciding the fate of the mission, must adhere to the Treaty of Madrid and informs the Guarani they must abandon the mission. In an intense exchange between the cardinal and the Guarani king, the king explains how the Jesuits taught his people it was God’s will they establish a mission, and now that God is telling them to leave, he does not understand - this makes no sense to the king. He says, “it was the will of God that they came out of the jungle and built the mission” and that they don’t understand why God has changed his mind and that ultimately, they were wrong to trust the church (The Mission 1:20:56-1:25:00). God’s rationale is odd to the Guarani and thus is indicative of someone experiencing the early stages of the absurd – grasping “that strangeness of the world” (Camus 20).
In conclusion, while we may never know the true intentions and conscious choices of Father Gabrial and Mendoza, we can observe absurdism illustrated in the film The Mission. From the concept of men working consciously knowing their labors could be and are fruitless, to the king’s moment of realization of the strangeness of the world, The Mission demonstrates what living an existentially absurd life may look like: living a life of “higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks” or in other words, to revolt against the absurd and live in a meaningless universe (Camus 111).
Aronson, Ronald. “Albert Camus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011, plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. 1955. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Penguin Books, 1979.
Pölzler, Thomas. "Camus’ Feeling of the Absurd." Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 52, no. 4, 2018, pp. 477-490. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Fcamus-feeling-absurd%2Fdocview%2F2036912540%2Fse-2, doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10790-018-9633-1.
The Mission. Directed by Roland Joffé, Columbia-Cannon-Warner Distributors, 1986.