On the Church and Society
December 20, 2006
Director Mel Gibson understands the point of filmmaking. Or, at least according to what Gibson says, that seems to be the case.
In an article ("A fresh start in the rainforest") in the December 18 Financial Times, Gibson is quoted: "As a filmmaker, my first responsibility is to entertain, my second to educate, and the third to uplift the audience to a higher plane."
That's a pretty good summation of what movie making should be. Of course, so many in Hollywood lose track of this three-pronged point, and instead get lost in preaching, shoving left-wing political messages down moviegoers throats, and offending.
But does Gibson accomplish his three-part goal in his new film "Apocalypto"? I've seen the film, and to be honest, I'm not really sure.
This, of course, is Gibson's first film since "The Passion of the Christ," one of the most powerful Christian films ever made. (Also, the first movie since his drunken diatribe against Jews, for which Gibson has apologized profusely.) And like "The Passion," it is presented in an ancient language with subtitles. Curiosity naturally runs high.
It is, to say the least, a very violent film. But "Apocalypto" also is extremely well done from a technical standpoint, and ranks as heart thumping and exciting.
The movie plays out over a few days during the period of decline in the Mayan culture, which Gibson portrays as filled with disease, corruption, brutality and inhumanity.
The life of a peaceful village is turned into hell on earth as a band of sadistic warriors attack. They are rounding up people to be dragged back to a Mayan city for slavery and human sacrifice. Unfortunately, Gibson doesn't skimp too much on the human sacrifice part.
The story focuses on one villager, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), who during the attack managed to hide his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and their son in a deep hole. But he is captured. After witnessing all kinds of atrocities, Jaguar Paw manages to escape, and then leads his enemies on a breathtaking chase through the jungle. As the chase proceeds, his pursuers are killed off one by one in a variety of creative and disturbing ways.
But finally Jaguar is too tired and injured to escape the last two warriors, and he kneels down on a beach. The warriors approach perplexed. And the camera turns to show ships in the water, and boats approach with Spaniards onboard, including a quite prominent cross and a priest. After this ferocious chase, the two warriors leave Jaguar alone and walk towards the boats. He is then free to go back and save his wife, son and newborn baby as water floods the hole and threatens to drown them. Whew!
While Jaguar and his family choose not to meet the new arrivals and instead return to the forest, the ending is noteworthy. Those last few minutes of the movie flagrantly fly in the face of what is the politically correct view on the European discovery of the New World. That is, everything was just hunky-dory - as if human nature itself had been suspended - until all of those Europeans brought disease, oppression, violence and death. Gibson's not so subtle point seems to be that life was rather brutish in the Americas, and civilization and salvation arrived on the shores with Europeans and Christianity. I am truly surprised that he has yet to be taken to task for this sin against liberal dogma.
So, did Gibson entertain in "Apocalypto"? Yes. Did he educate? Some perhaps. Did he uplift the audience to a higher plane? The answer here is yes and no.
Violence in a film can serve a purpose. That was most clearly the case in Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." That movie truly did uplift many Christian moviegoers, including myself, to a higher plane. In "Apocalypto," one does find courage, love and commitment in Jaguar's fight to save his family.
But, while way over the top, the violence in this film is not particularly unique in Hollywood. It is used to get movie watchers on the side of the wronged husband/father, who uses every means possible to rescue his family, dispensing some hard justice along the way. We've seen these fundamentals before, but Gibson does put a very original twist on it all.
In the end, "Apocalypto" is a jungle chase film that happens to also offer up a few tidbits to ponder and discuss along the way.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, is the editor and publisher of the "On the Church & Society Report."
This column is from the latest issue of the "On the Church & Society Report," which also includes "Faith and the Economy," "Moral Equivalency," "Gender Bender," and "A Trans-Siberian Christmas?" To receive a free four-issue trial of "On the Church & Society Report," send an e-mail request to ChurchandSociety@aol.com.