A few thoughts have settled.
The scenes where Mendoza (Robert DeNiro) is carrying his armor through the jungle and finally up the side of the waterfall were difficult to watch. I wanted someone to free him of his burden (like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress) and when Brother Fielding (Liam Neeson) finally does, Mendoza scornfully ties the burden back upon himself. Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) has already told Brother Fielding that his burden would be removed only when Mendoza thought it was time. Meaning: when Mendoza has felt that he has suffered enough for his sins, he would stop carrying his burden.
Does God expect us to do penance for our sins? Making something right that we have wronged seems like an expectation that God has for us but do we really need to suffer a specific amount of time? Does suffering for the sake of suffering prove beneficial to our spiritual walk? Penance, in this form, seems man-made.
God did not require Mendoza to carry the trappings of his former mercenary life for atonement. Mendoza was forgiven when (or if) he asked for it. Perhaps he never sought forgiveness but tried to atone for his sins by himself. Atonement can not take place unless we seek God’s forgiveness, right?
Mendoza’s burden is finally lifted by one of the Indians who could have easily cut Mendoza’s throat without blame (humanly speaking). But this interaction does not illustrate atonement, only forgiveness. Perhaps some definitions would be helpful here. By atonement, I mean, “to make whole”. By forgiveness, I mean, “to cover over, be not offended”. Only by seeking God’s atonement could Mendoza be made whole. And the best that the Indian could offer him was non-offense. Mercy as well as justice was given. Mercy because the Indian did not kill Mendoza; justice because the Indian did not have the right to take Mendoza’s life.
The scenes are, nonetheless, very powerful. I do not know what the Roland Joffe’s (Director) intent was for the scenes but it seems as if Mendoza is trying to earn his wholeness through suffering. I have been guilty of doing the same thing, however. Penance for sins may be a Catholic dogma but Protestants (myself included) have assumed it as well: “If only I do so-and-so or such-and-such, God will forgive me.” From what I understand about God, he is able to forgive us even if we don’t do anything to make it right or self-punitive.