Apocalypto — pro-Catholic, or something else?

Warning: There be major, major spoilers here.

Rod Dreher and Jeffrey Overstreet have linked to a handful of spoiler-filled reviews of Apocalypto which suggest that Mel Gibson’s film is, in some sense, about the triumph of Christianity over the evils of paganism. That is how some of Gibson’s Catholic fans have interpreted the film, and that is also how some of his detractors, such as Traci Arden, have interpreted it, too.

But as you could guess from my own review of the film (“he hints ever so obliquely that the world has not fared any better under we Christians”), I think this interpretation of the film is dead wrong. David Van Biema, religion reporter for Time magazine, gets closer to the truth when he says the movie’s approach to Catholicism is “equivocal” — and if we were to take into account the prophecy uttered half-way through the film by the diseased girl depicted above, I suspect our interpretations of the film would move even further away from the triumphalist end of the spectrum.

I would have to see the film a second time — and I do plan to, soon — before I could be absolutely sure about all the details, but I explained my reasons recently in an e-mail to someone who replied to my review, and I will copy-and-paste that e-mail in the comments to this post. Feel free to throw in your own two bits.

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  • This is the e-mail that I recently wrote to one of my readers:

    – – –

    > But where is the evidence him was criticizing the Christian world!?

    I would have to see the film a second time to be absolutely sure, but I believe the diseased girl who utters her prophecy — who, in effect, predicts everything that will happen in the second half of the film — describes the European Christians as those who will devastate the environment (“scratch the earth”, or words to that effect).

    Alas, my notes for this part of the film are not as detailed as I would like, so I could be wrong about that. But my interpretation of the film’s portrayal of the Christians is rooted not only in the scene where they ultimately appear, but in the scene where their appearance is foretold; I will pay more attention to that scene when I see the film next time.

    > Gibson has two strong points. Blood and gore, and a blind uncritical devotion to his church. If you want to call those strong points.

    Well, Gibson belongs to a splinter sect of Catholicism that rejects all the Popes for the past 40 years, so it’s a little more complicated for him than simply “blind uncritical devotion to his church”. Is he blindly devoted to his relatively young splinter sect? Perhaps. But is he blindly devoted to the Catholic church as a whole — i.e., to the Church as it existed when he was born? No — indeed, quite the opposite.

    One of the striking features of Gibson’s last three films is how they consistently favour what you might call “grassroots” faith over institutional religions. Consider the “secret marriage” of William Wallace and his first lover versus the proper church wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales in Braveheart, or consider the portrayal of the Jewish leaders versus the followers of Christ in The Passion, or consider the human-sacrificing Mayan temple authorities versus the humble prayers offered by the forest-dwelling tribesmen. So when the institutional Christians show up at the end of Apocalypto, I do not assume that Gibson looks on them more favourably than he looks on the institutional figures that we saw at the Mayan temple. Instead, they seem to me to be the human equivalent of the animals that inadvertently rescue Jaguar Paw from his pursuers; they are just one more trap that the bad guys fall into.

    For whatever that’s worth.

  • I think the point about the film’s Catholicism is *not* that the film presents the Spanish at the end as some kind of saviors coming to rescue the Mayans from themselves. Indeed, if that were the intent of the film, it would have made more sense for Jaguar Paw to accept his wife’s suggestion to meet the Spanish, rather than turning away to seek a “new beginning” in the jungle.

    Rather, the film’s Catholic elements are more subtle, and indeed are more consistent with your theory of a divide between the grassroots and the institutional. That is, one can see Catholic themes in the mother who prays in the river (echoing Catholic prayers to Mary) or in the village elder who tells a story that closely parallels the observations of Pascal and Augustine that the human heart has a hole or gap that can be filled by God.

  • Thanks, Stuart, I think you are absolutely right.

    And FWIW, I just got back from seeing the film a second time, and I can now say without any hesitation whatsoever that those who see the Spaniards at the end as Catholic heroes — heroes who have come to rescue the Mayans from their primitive, pagan, pre-Christian ways — are simply nuts. Or at least, they aren’t paying attention.

    Thankfully, the girl who utters the prophecy halfway through the film speaks somewhat slowly, so I was able to write down most of what she said — though whether I can read my own handwriting properly is another question. At any rate, here’s what I think she said — and I am absolutely certain about the last two sentences in particular:

    “You fear me. So you should, all you who are vile. Would you like to know how you will die? The sacred time is near. Beware the blackness of day. Beware the man who brings the jaguar. Behold … [something about the man rising from the mud]. For the one he takes you to will cancel the sky and scratch out the earth. Scratch you out.”

    She follows this with a comment to the villainous Mayans about how “you” will all soon meet “your end.”

    Add to this the fact that the Spaniards seem more imposing than inviting, the way they stand in their boats, as well as the fact that the film clearly sides with Jaguar Paw, and thus implicitly with his desire to avoid the Spaniards, and I don’t see how anyone could say that the conclusion to this film is anything but, well, ominous.

    I can appreciate that some of the more ardent fans of The Passion of the Christ might be in denial about the fact that Gibson has made a film that is, in some sense, critical of Christianity. But it is particularly unfortunate that some of the people ranting about this film’s alleged Catholic triumphalism have been academics, who really ought to know how to “read” a text before commenting on it.

  • Thanks for your transcription of the girl’s prophesy – I just saw the movie and was looking for her words when I came across your blog.

    As a counterpoint to your interpretation, it’s interesting to note that the prophesy seems to apply to “all who are vile,” which implies that the Catholics somewhat justly wiped out the civilization (cf. Sodom and Gomorrah), or at least that the Mayans had it coming because they committed these heinous acts (of dubious historical accuracy).

  • Yes, I definitely believe that the movie wants us to think that at least the urban Mayans “had it coming” — but this does not in any way mean that the Spaniards are presented as the “good” people who will “save” the Mayans from themselves, as some commentators have asserted. Indeed, the girl’s prophecy indicates otherwise.

    I like what Jeremy Pierce says: “a friend of mine thought of the Spanish as something like the biblical portrayals of Assyria and Babylon, carrying out divine judgment but not necessarily seeing it that way themselves and certainly not doing so blamelessly.”