A morality play disguised as an action movie, Mel Gibson’s 2006 Apocalypto, which courts controversy by raising issues on race, religion and politics, is mesmerizing as a visual spectacle and deeply satisfying in its depiction of familial love and sociopolitical opportunism.
The Spanish Conquistadors have anchored their ships and are now approaching the beach, bringing with them the greatest gift God has given to mankind: Christ on the cross. Jaguar Paw and his pursuers stop on their feet, exhausted, and, mystified, stare at the horizon, unable to comprehend what those men and their floating vessels mean. These bloodthirsty savages, with their horrific sacrifices, have plenty to learn from Christian piety and the idea of original sin – a superior civilization is ready to enlighten them. Is it really?! What an utter nonsense!
Somewhere in Central America, in the Mayan Empire, sometime in the 16th Century, a tribe of hunter-gatherers live peacefully deep inside the jungle. When warriors from the more technologically advanced ‘urban’ centre attack them, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) hides his wife and son in a hole on the ground before being captured and made into a slave. The tribe’s men and women are taken on a long journey to the oppressors’ pyramid-filled home ground, where they will be used as sacrifice to the gods for the sake of a better harvest. Jaguar Paw escapes death by the appearance of an eclipse and goes back to the tribe to save his family while Mayan warriors play a game of cat and mouse with him.
It is often said that the Mayans are depicted in the film as murderous savages who are destined to be destroyed from within, and thus deserve to be saved by the Spaniards. How can anyone understand the newly arrived Europeans as saviours is beyond me – unless one sees the event through a preconceived perspective, which is supposed to represent the director’s intention. That Gibson’s Christian worldview would infer such an interpretation might not even be accurate. To assume that he is implicitly siding with the bearers of Christianity from our mediated understanding of his personal beliefs is not only to be biased, but also utterly simple-minded.
. Apocalypto Trailer (with Alternative Main Actor) ooooo ooooo ooooo o.o © Touchstone Pictures & Icon Productions
Such accusations of malice are, in fact, trying to deny Gibson’s ability as a storyteller and denounce him as a dishonest artist. This ad hominem attack, which usually ignore nuances within the artistic work, ought to be seen for what it really is, i.e., laziness and stupidity combined. ‘He is a racist, therefore his movies are racist too’ seems to me the perfect excuse not to look at Gibson’s films. The funny thing is that this attitude is not only of little critical value but also ironic, for it tries to defeat an argument through a logic that can be used to destroy itself. Gibson’s detractors are the ones that end up looking like prejudiced people.
It is virtually impossible to discuss the issues raised by Apocalypto without mentioning Gibson’s previous film, The Passion of the Christ (2004), which has been labelled anti-Semitic. This extremely violent and (to me) deeply affecting film has basically cemented Gibson’s reputation in certain circles. Now, apart from the controversy created by the movie, is it really fair to evaluate any of Gibson’s works from a preconceived view of him? How presumptuous it is to assume that one really understands the whole human being from some fragments of his ideas. Obviously, what an artist think is, ultimately, reflected on his work, but only to a certain extent. I can be a diehard conservative who is against immigration and yet – at least, theoretically – be able to depict the struggle of an immigrant sensitively and accurately.
The thread of criticism about historical inaccuracies within the film follows similar paths paved by prejudices. If Apocalypto is meant to depict the pinnacle of the Mayan civilization, which was already in decline some 600 years before the arrival of the Spaniards, then scholars have plenty to criticize. There are apparently several factual errors. However, the film never even hints at the idea that what we are watching on the screen represents the portrayal of history in action. Why is this fetishism for accuracy even relevant? Is any of the classic westerns of the 20th century less of a masterpiece because they usually sanitize gun-fight and smooth the hard edges of a society too rough for their tastes?
Why take a black-and-white view on the film? Some take offence from the depiction of violence by the Mayans – it seems to imply that their demise is justified. Is it that hard to understand that such historical landmarks carry no moral imperatives? From the depths of my ignorance I dare to guess that the Mayan civilization was like any other before it: a bit violent; a lot unfair; with plenty of good, and a little of bad. The arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors and their eventual supremacy over the natives imply one and one thing only: the Europeans were carrying more powerful weapons and fatal diseases. They certainly did not stand on higher moral grounds. In fact, the opposite is true.
As an action, suspenseful movie, Apocalypto is one of the best of the new millennium. Philosophically, it holds its ground pretty well, as long as one is willing to separate the filmmaker from the film.