Mel Makes a Spectacle of Suffering

CNS photo/Touchstone
CNS photo/Touchstone )

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 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 worse 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 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 his side.

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 and gore.

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 version.

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 fury.)

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 restraint.

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 critic of