Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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Apocalypto’s violence is exotic, excessive — and pointless
BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
biblical-sounding title — and subtitled dialogue in an ancient language — Mel
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 Apocalypto, means “I reveal.”
But what, if
anything, is revealed by the film? What is this film about?
With its pre-Columbian
Mesoamerican setting, subtitled dialogue and unknown cast of indigenous,
largely first-time actors, Apocalypto is 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 for a
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 speeches in the film 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 the cruel Mayans, and a nearly
miraculous turn of events strongly suggests that whatever powers that be are on
Above all, though, 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
Echoes of Gibson’s earlier work
runs through the film. There’s throat-slitting, disemboweling, beheading and
suggestions of rape (Braveheart).
A bloodied, battered hero fighting indestructibly on and on (The Patriot). And a mysterious,
preternatural child, along with a stabbing wound to the side (The Passion of the Christ).
Why are Gibson’s movies so horrifically
violent? 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
Some of the violence in Apocalypto, such
as the 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 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 shows one of them
bloodily bashing out his brains on a hidden rock, it’s hard to see the
historical or narrative necessity.
Some critics charge that Gibson’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 revenge seem to be the main point, though it’s certainly
part of the mix.
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, is the butt of humiliating
treatment because he hasn’t been able to give his wife a child.
From there, the film goes on to
trade on male anxieties regarding protecting and providing, 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, the film pits
fate, courage and, above all, willingness to suffer — to triumph over and
through suffering. As in other Gibson films, embracing suffering is the path to
victory. (Even in The Passion Jesus
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 soldiers to renew their torturing attack with even greater
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 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. 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
Content advisory: Much extreme graphic violence and
gore; disturbing images; ethnographic nudity; frank sexual references and
themes; implied rape; coarse and obscene language; gross-out humor.
Steven D. Greydanus
is editor and chief
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