Thursday, October 27, 2011

Martyrdom is cinematic

When I learned of the killing of Italian missionary Fr. Fausto Tentorio on Oct. 17 in Arakan Valley in North Cotabato, my thoughts went back to the killing of Fr. Tulio Favali in 1985. I still have the human rights postcard that shows a bloodied Favali, his brain splattered on the ground.

Father Tentorio, 59, fondly called Father Pops, was the third priest belonging to the Pontifical Institute for the Foreign Missions to be gunned down in Mindanao. He was laid to rest yesterday, with some 10,000 people seeing him off, many of them lumad (indigenous people) whom he served for more than 30 years. There were many stirring images there that, I hope, might someday inspire someone to make a movie or documentary of it. So unchoreographed, but so cinematic.

And so my thoughts also went back to the 1986 movie “The Mission,” directed by Roland JoffĂ©, which I had watched several times. I loved the movie so much that I had to get the movie’s sound track by Ennio Moriconne. A few days ago I dug up my 1986 Sunday Inquirer Magazine write-up on the movie (“The Mission: International cinema’s last dinosaur”) which had Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons in major roles as Jesuit missionaries defending the oppressed South American natives. Martyrdom was to be their crowning glory.

I also dug up my 1985 Favali-related magazine article which was about the diary of Fr. Peter Geremia, the real target of Favali’s killers. Then I went over my 2005 column on Sr. Dorothy Stang who was killed in Brazil for defending the indigenous tribes and the Amazon wilderness from exploiters.

Going over my own written stuff on bloody events of the distant past was perhaps my way of contemplating the recent bloody events. There have been so many this October—the assassination of Father Tentorio, the mass killing of soldiers in Basilan by Moro rebels despite the on-going peace talks, murders, rapes, family massacres, deaths caused by environmental disasters. And we’re just a few days away from All Saints’/All Souls’ Day when we honor our dear departed. October is Indigenous Peoples Month.
With Father Tentorio in my thoughts, I read what I had written a quarter of a century ago on a movie on martyrdom. Hmm, I thought, I could have written this just yesterday.
“The music, the song and the gaze of each native bear the mark of sadness for the plundering of the land…Our feet are calloused by the long journeys we have made, fleeing from the invader each time he has driven us into a corner.”

That was part of the message of the indigenous people of Colombia to Pope John Paul II during his visit there, I wrote. This painful and damning modern-day epistle could very well have been written by the Guarani Indians of 18th century Paraguay to the Pope of that time, when the Indians, along with Jesuit missionaries caught in a political maelstrom not of their own making, were driven out of mission territory and butchered by men who believed that might is right. This is what the film “The Mission” is all about.
Winner of the Palm d’Or Award for Best Film, “The Mission” tells us about the politics of greed and enslavement. It also gives us a hint that liberation theology, so frowned upon by despots in scarlet robes and military uniforms, was not invented in the 20th century but rose out of the blood spilled by the poor and the dispossessed—the “anawim.”

As one watches the drama that unfolded 200 years ago one can feel its contemporary implications. Today, tribal or indigenous groups are still subjected to the same degradation, they are still used as pawns in power conflicts, and the selfless women and men of God who work and live with them are themselves dismissed as incorrigible recalcitrants who got lost with their sheep.

Fathers Mendoza (De Niro) and Gabriel (Irons) choose the path less trodden, but when the time of reckoning comes, each one chooses a separate way without abandoning the flock. Mendoza chooses to fight with arms alongside the Guarani Indians while Gabriel opts for prayer and Guarani people power to stop the invading forces.

Both prove powerless before the mighty soldiers. The mission goes up in flames, the Indians and the missionaries are all but wiped out. And all that are left are mountains trembling with verdant rage, all that remains is the eternal hum of the forest which must continue to nurture the young who are left behind.

Newsweek’s Jack Kroll called “The Mission” a “sweeping spectacle about one of history’s great betrayals.”

Hic sunt dracones. “There Be Dragons.” Betrayal and death are also themes in this latest JoffĂ© movie which was inspired by events in the life of St. Josemaria Escriva, Spanish priest and founder of the Opus Dei. But more than betrayal, there is love, forgiveness and redemption being played out against the awesome backdrop of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. (Gorgeous production design, I must say.)

The movie is part true-to-life (Escriva’s and the Opus Dei’s early days) and part fiction (the life and battles of his childhood bosom friend Manolo Torres). Their adult lives unfold separately but their paths would later cross dangerously a number of times in the battlefields.

“There Be Dragons” is a drama woven around the young Escriva (Charlie Cox) but not necessarily centered on him. The movie is bigger than him, which is a good thing, otherwise it would look like an Opus Dei hard-sell. It is a story of war—within and without—with no one left unscathed, Escriva included.

It is a story within a story, spun out of a journalist-biographer’s desire to know the truth about Escriva who was a friend of his dying father’s. The flashbacks begin. Deadly secrets explode like bombs. An even more stunning surprise waits in the end.

“There Be Dragons” will be in theaters next week.

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