Apocalypto Now!

I watched Mel Gibson's Apocalyto last night, a film which has been critiqued by many for many reasons. I, however, found it a moving and thought-provoking film, well-worth wading through the violence that has become Gibson's signature. But to concentrate on the violence would be to miss the larger points. Gibson has certainly built his career on a certain amount of violence, either the rather pointless violence of his acting career, and the more pointed variety of his directorial career. The Passion of the Christ was certainly violent, but then, so was the real Passion.

In Apocalypto, Gibson looks at violence and the collapse of empires. He announces his theme from the start, with a quote from the historian Will Durant that empires first collapse internally before they are conquered by foreign enemies. We are invited throughout the movie to make comparisons to our own situation. At first, this may seem an impossibility, since he begins with a forest people and village life, a life as foreign to us as the obscure language that they speak. But the scene soon shifts to a sophisticated urban society, a society of stone buildings, elaborate temples and rituals, of deep class divisions, of luxury and poverty, of slavery and of human sacrifice. There is even a Dick Cheney look-alike in a feathered headdress who gives a rousing speech to a cheering crowd about the strength of the empire--just before he cuts the heart out of a victim, beheads the life-less corpse, and hurls head and body down the temple steps, a gesture that pleases the crowd no end.

In this confrontation of absolute power and relative innocence, the later would seem to have no chance. And it doesn't, not as a group. One man alone has the chance to escape the violence and cruelty, a chance he can take only with great courage and suffering. But it is only at the end when we see the ultimate conquerer of both cruelty and innocence, and then we get but a brief glimpse. It is all we need; we already know how the story will end.

The actors are not actors at all, but people who are themselves connected to this history and who speak the language. And since, as in The Passion, the film is not in our language, it is not language that carries the film, but a stunning visual imagery and vocabulary. But even without speaking the language, the acting is as moving as any you would see from professionals whose language we share. Often I found myself ignoring the subtitles to watch the actors; words weren't necessary, the action said it all.

This is not a movie for the squeamish (my wife won't watch it). Yet I think it is a worthwhile effort; in the strange accents and architectures of an alien past, we see the reflection of the present moment.

3 comments:

Iosue Andreas Friday, July 6, 2007 at 2:19:00 AM CDT  

Excellent review. The part about Cheney makes me want to run out band rent the film.

Said the director, "What's human sacrifice if not sending guys off to Iraq for no reason?"

patrick roberts Monday, December 31, 2007 at 7:30:00 PM CST  

i agree, well expressed. i appreciate your willingness to see and understand Gibson's message rather than a variety of other options (griping, moaning, pointing out petty flaws) ... btw, is it me or does Mr. Adreas' quote make no sense whatsoever?

John Médaille Monday, December 31, 2007 at 7:37:00 PM CST  

It makes sense to me. I don't see the problem. One may agree or disagree with the statement, but it is intelligible, at least to me.

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