Despite the biblical-sounding title — and subtitled dialogue in an ancient language — Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto isn’t an eschatological follow-up to The Passion of the Christ. It has nothing to do with the book of Revelation, or with the end of the world — though it does touch on the end of a world, or more than one.
Actually, although the English word “apocalypse” connotes the end of the world, the real meaning is revelation, “unveiling.” The form used in the title of Mel Gibson’s latest movie, Apocalypto, means “I reveal.” But what, if anything, is revealed by the film? What is Apocalypto about?
With its pre-Columbian Mesoamerican setting, unknown cast of indigenous, largely first-time actors, and subtitled dialogue (Yucatek Maya), Apocalypto turns out to be a brutal action movie with unusually exotic production values. The film depicts the murderous conquest of peaceful jungle villagers by cruel Mayan warriors, some to be sold as slaves, others destined for a more terrible fate.
Is there any larger meaning? The film offers various possible clues. There’s an opening quotation from historian Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without, until it has destroyed itself from within.” There are suggestive speeches about the crippling effects of fear, how it crawls into the soul and destroys inner peace. A village elder retells an intriguing myth about the unique power and restless hunger of man, who borrows the strengths of all the animals before they realize that man has a hole inside him that will make him take and take until the world has no more to give.
Christological echoes crop up in the film: An unsettling prophecy suggests that the hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), may be somehow chosen to overcome against the cruel Mayans, and a nearly miraculous turn of events strongly suggests that whatever powers that be are on his side. A lurid sequence set at a Mayan pyramid temple includes a speech that could be applied to contemporary politics and a hideous ritual that could be seen as an indictment of the culture of death, while a mountain of corpses connects the scenes of human sacrifice to the Holocaust.
Above all, the film speaks the language of violence. Following in the footsteps of Gibson’s Braveheart, The Patriot, and The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto is steeped in graphic bloodletting, mutilation and gore.
Echoes of Gibson’s earlier work runs through the film: the throat-slitting, disemboweling and beheading execution, and suggestions of rape from Braveheart; the bloodied, battered hero fighting indestructibly on and on á là The Patriot; an eerie preternatural child and a stabbing wound to the side, among other things, recalling The Passion of the Christ.
Why are Gibson’s movies so gruesome? What is the attraction? Some charge that the director’s work is simply sadistic, reveling in brutality for brutality’s sake. Yet morality and heroism are as integral to Gibson’s films as violence; Apocalypto isn’t just a Mesoamerican Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nor does thirst for vengeance seem to be the main appeal, though it’s certainly part of the mix. (When one character says something like ”I’m going to peel off his skin and make him watch me wear it,” some viewers may be reminded of Gibson’s own graphic invective against New York Times writer Frank Rich in the wake of a Times piece on Gibson’s father: “I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog.”)
At the same time, neither historical realism nor the narrative demands of the story seem sufficient rationales. Even in The Passion of the Christ, although enthusiastic commentators have suggested that the real brutality of Jesus’ passion exceeded that of the film, that Gibson actually toned down the violence in his depiction, realistically this is very likely an inversion of the truth. Certainly Jesus’ redemptive suffering exceeded what any film could depict, but in terms of actual physical violence the real scourging at the pillar could hardly have been as extreme as the film version.
Some of the violence in Apocalypto, such as the ghastly scenes of human sacrifice and the vicious conquest and enslavement of the villagers, may be integral to the depiction of a ruthless, decadent civilization. Yet when a freak accident leads to a fleeting closeup of an angry jaguar chewing the face of a Mayan warrior, or when a team of warriors leap over a waterfall and an underwater camera captures one of them bloodily bashing out his brains on a hidden rock, it’s hard to see the historical or narrative necessity.
Revealingly, Apocalypto opens with a pair of crude, cruel practical jokes that focus squarely on the theme of manhood. One of the villagers, a big fellow named Blunted (Jonathan Brewer), hasn’t been able to give his wife a child, and endures humiliating treatment as a result, starting with a bit of business involving the testicles of the quarry after a hunt.
This opening gag graphically establishes a keen interest in what might be expressed as “having the stones.” From there, the film goes on to trade on deep-rooted male anxieties regarding protecting and providing, honor and shame, and above all male fear of powerlessness, of impotence, of inability to protect and provide, to prevent the destruction of one’s life and world.
Against such fears, Apocalypto pits courage, something like fate or providence, and above all willingness to suffer. As in other Gibson films, the capacity to embrace and triumph in or through suffering, violence and humiliation — whether by enduring it, or potentially inflicting it — is both the path to victory and the badge of manhood. (Even Jesus in The Passion was depicted deliberately prolonging and intensifying the scourging at the pillar, standing up after the Romans had beaten him to the ground and provoking the incredulous centurions to renew their bludgeoning attack with even greater fury.)
Actually, triumph through suffering may also be the badge of womanhood, particularly of motherhood. The Passion presented the Virgin Mary suffering with her Son, her heart pierced by a sword. Apocalypto gives even more screentime to maternal suffering, as Jaguar Paw’s pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and young son Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez) are neither slain nor taken prisoner, but left trapped in a deep pit, threatened with starvation or dehydration, with Seven’s baby ready to come at any time. Seven’s efforts to escape, to protect her son from various threats, and the inevitable childbirth scene, while not quite as punishing as the gauntlet Jaguar Paw must run, are more than grueling enough.
Such primal themes have always been part of Gibson’s work, but Apocalypto, with its pre-Christian setting, offers perhaps the ultimate theater for the director’s concerns. Perhaps even more than The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto sums up who Gibson is and what he has to say as a filmmaker. If the film reveals anything, it reveals Gibson himself.
Gibson is a consummate filmmaker, and the action is never less than riveting. Yet as the film repeatedly ratchets up the wince factor beyond what seems necessary or appropriate, it’s hard not to feel that suffering has been reduced to spectacle. The Passion offered a redemptive context for its brutality that seems lacking here. Gibson is still seeking life amid death, but the balance is off.
The final showdown between Jaguar Paw and his detestable archrival is brilliantly orchestrated. But then comes a moment when the bad guy is not quite dead, but not long for this life… and, as he looks up at the hero, a thin jet of blood spurts from the side of his laid-open head, pulsing with his heartbeat. Does anyone want or need to see that?
Gibson is a bold, powerful artist who is unafraid of challenges. For his next challenge, he might try exercising restraint.
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I read a review you wrote in the National Catholic Register about Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto. I thoroughly enjoy reading the Register and from time to time I will brouse through your movie reviews to see what you have to say about the content of recent films, opinions I usually not only agree with but trust.
However, your recent review of Apocalypto was way off the mark. First of all the gore of Mel Gibson’s films are only to make them more realistic, and if you think that is too much, then you don’t belong watching a movie that can actually acurately show the suffering that people go through. The violence of the ancient Mayans can make your stomach turn just reading about it, and all Gibson wanted to do was accurately portray it. It would do you good to read up more about the ancient Mayans and you would discover that his film may not have even done justice itself to the kind of suffering ancient tribes went through at the hands of their hostile enemies.
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In your assessment of Apocalypto you made these statements:Even in The Passion of the Christ, although enthusiastic commentators have suggested that the real brutality of Jesus’ passion exceeded that of the film, that Gibson actually toned down the violence in his depiction, realistically this is very likely an inversion of the truth. Certainly Jesus’ redemptive suffering exceeded what any film could depict, but in terms of actual physical violence the real scourging at the pillar could hardly have been as extreme as the film version.
I am taking issue with the above comments for the following reasons. Gibson clearly states that his depiction of Christ’s suffering is based on the approved visions of Mother Mary of Agreda and Anne Catherine Emmerich. Having read substantial excerpts from the works of these mystics I would agree with his premise. They had very detailed images presented to them by God in order to give to humanity a clear picture of the physical and spiritual events in the life of Jesus Christ.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.