The Worst Sorts of Falls

Contemplating Colonialism, Missionaries, Politics, Priests

statue of Jesus in Cusco, Peru

Jesus overlooks Cusco, Peru
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Fresh from a trip to Peru, I watch The Mission, a 1986 film about missionaries in South America and their efforts to convert indigenous people to Christianity. Starring Jeremy Irons as a nonviolent priest and Robert De Niro as a former slave trader new to the religious fold, politics—a treaty between Spain and Portugal—intervenes. (A very young Liam Neeson also has a significant role, as does Aidan Quinn.) Not surprisingly, the indigenous people don’t fare too well. Neither do the religious, nor the politicians. The film, set at the breathtaking Iguassu Falls (today a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site under the jurisdiction of Brazil and Argentina), manages to be beautiful and bleak. I watch, again, as I did in 1986, and can’t help but wonder, how can this be?

At a cemetery in Cusco, Peru

At a cemetery in Cusco, Peru
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

In Peru, I am similarly uncomfortable. In Cusco, a convent is built on top of Incan ruins. In Cusco Cathedral, the only disciple of color in a painting of the Last Supper is Judas. Mary is dressed in colorful clothing to appeal to the people. I am a little apprehensive about what was done in the name of God in this part of the world. I am uncomfortable about what was done to indigenous people in my part of the world. Then I think about our wars today. Colonialism, politics, religious fervor: how much has changed?

—Lori Tripoli

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Statue of an Incan leader in Cusco, Peru

Statue of an Incan leader in Cusco, Peru
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

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