Robert Bolt is perhaps most well-known for his play A Man for All Seasons, centred on the fatal relationship between Henry VIII and his principled Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More.
In 1984 he was commissioned to write the screenplay for The Mission, a story set among the 18th century Jesuit missions deep in the heart of the Amazonian jungles of South America when the continent was a golden goose jostled over by both the Portuguese and Spanish Empires. The themes are about slavery and the evangelical nature of the late medieval church; but under Bolt’s penetrating gaze, its central conflict is really between the demands of conscience and the exigencies of Empire.
Or it should have been. The film that we are now able to watch is a poor shadow of Bolt’s envisaged outcome, because the film studio forced major cuts and sought to simplify the several complex themes, worried that a simple-minded American audience would otherwise lose interest. It’s a pity, for in the process one of Bolt’s great scenes was cut, and cinema is the poorer for it.
The lost scene involves an interaction between the Jesuit priest Gabriel and the violent slave trader Mendoza who, having killed his brother in a jealous quarrel, is seeking to avoid imprisonment, or death, by serving penance with Gabriel’s order. When they first meet, Mendoza, still in his bloodstained shirt, sits dejectedly in his spartan cell, awaiting the judgment either of this life or the next. He seems a man in deep depression. A man of arrogance and power, a man who once decided the fate of thousands of natives whom he enslaved, he now is much reduced, and it shows even in how little physical space he takes up in the cell, as he literally cowers in a corner.
Gabriel enters, holding Mendoza’s sword and scabbard, the source of his previous authority. Now, it is a symbol of his guilt. The priest asks simply, into the silence,
To which Mendoza wretchedly sits up and says,
“Father, not to have done it, I would have cut off both my hands.”
And as he says it, he looks carefully at his powerful wrists, and it is clear that he means it.
If he expected any sympathy from Gabriel, none is forthcoming.
Gabriel says simply, but cuttingly,
“That is not remorse. It is regret.”
The priest continues.
“A lecherous husband regrets that he married. A banker regrets that he made a bad bargain. Regret is regret for the consequence. Remorse is regret for the thing itself.”
These are simple words, but profound. I thought about them this week seeing KPMG International’s grovelling apology for the sorry mess they have caused South Africa in aiding and abetting corruption and larceny on a grand scale. How to read their apology, their firing of their most senior South African executives? How to read their offer of penance, beginning with a return of all the obscene moneys earned from their deeds? Is it simply regret for being caught out and now facing the prospect of all their clients fleeing – regret for the consequence, as Bolt puts it – or is it actual, real remorse for the thing itself?
For us to believe that it is the latter, we would have to believe that KPMG would have voluntarily disclosed their local unit’s actions and fired their executives even if the #GuptaLeaks hadn’t occurred. We would have to believe that it was an isolated event; that the people who collectively make up KPMG are sick to their stomach at what has occurred in their name. At this point in time, these are incredibly big leaps of faith which they are asking South Africans to take.
Of course, it might turn out to be so, and for this to happen it will require decisive leadership and real remorse by the thousands of employees who make up the firm.
But that’s easier said than done. I say this because looking at how KPMG conducted itself, over a period of almost 10 years, what emerges is a picture of a company doing its utmost to do dastardly acts, incredibly well. This was not a company accidently backing themselves into a corner – this was a company doing something illegal, to the best of their ability. And so here I find Robert Bolt has some further insights for those remaining KPMG employees to ask themselves.
For after Gabriel says what he does about regret and remorse, he doesn’t stop, but goes further.
“And to be as good at anything as you appear to be at killing, my son, I’m afraid you have to enjoy it.”
This is a killer blow. Mendoza, horrified and incredulous, utters a whimper.
“Do you know anyone who’s really good at a thing he doesn’t enjoy doing?”
Mendoza thinks about this and asks,
“Father, are you telling me that I’m a monster?”
And Gabriel replies, gently but firmly, breaking the bad news,
“No. No, that’s what you’re telling yourself I think. But are you telling me that in the actual moment – not afterwards, mind, but in the moment – you can run a man through from front to back, with regret?”
The theme of The Mission, then, is of soul-searching, and of recognising the monster lurking in the mirror. For KPMG to be able to do the former, it has first got to recognise that it has become the latter. DM
Support DAILY MAVERICK & get FREE UBER vouchers every month
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money, though not nearly as much as its absence can cost global community. No country can live and prosper without truth - that's why it matters.
Every Daily Maverick article and every Scorpio exposé is proof of our dedication to this unshakeable mission. Investing in our news media is by far the most effective investment into South Africa's future.
You can support Independent and Investigative journalism by joining Maverick Insider. If you contribute R150 or more per month you will receive R100 back in UBER vouchers. EVERY MONTH until October 2019.
So, if you'd like to help and do something meaningful for yourself and your country, then sign up to become a Maverick Insider. Together we can Defend Truth.
Princess Diana once invited Cindy Crawford to Buckinham Palace because her son Prince William had a crush on her.