“Apocalypto”: A Catholic Masterpiece?

Apocalypto is dividing up my friends, colleagues, and my favorite critics more than any movie I can remember since… well… The Passion of the Christ.

Thanks to Stuart Buck for sending this along… certainly a different perspective than I’ve read elsewhere…

Apocalypto is a Catholic masterpiece. Its message shines as clear as the noon-day sun for those who have eyes of faith–but is missed completely by unbelievers. It is a story of the end of a civilization; a civilization that was destroyed from within, by infighting and environmental destruction and imperialism and cynicism and slaughter of the innocent. As that civilization falls, a prophecy is given by a small child of a new beginning.

CAUTION! If you want to avoid spoilers, you may want to skip this one.

Stuart also recommended Ross Douthat’s blog about the film at The American Scene.

Most good movies that deal in blood, admittedly, walk a finer line between sensation and seriousness. Think of The Godfather, for instance, where the violence is both necessary to the action and dangerously close to crowd-pleasing territory, a trap that later mob stories like Goodfellas and The Sopranos have attempted to escape by de-mythologizing their mobsters. (I don’t think they’ve quite succeeded.) Like Peter, I would put Apocalypto in this tightrope-walking category: The depictions of human sacrifice, I thought, showed just enough blood to get the point across and not a corpuscle more, but in the second half of the movie – where the hero picks of his pursuers one by one – there are a pair of scenes (you’ll know them when you see them) where Gibson treads dangerously close to actively reveling in gore. This is a weakness in the movie, one of many, but I don’t think it’s enough to damn Apocalypto, or its director, as corrupt.

And then there’s Peter Suderman, and I admire his writing as well.

Sigh. I guess I’m gonna have to go see this after all.

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  • Peter T Chattaway

    I really have to see this film a second time, but I think these pro-Catholic interpretations of the film are dead, dead wrong.

    I might as well copy-and-paste an e-mail that I sent to a reader who responded to my own review of the film (and warning, THERE BE SPOILERS HERE):

    – – –

    > 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 will add just one more comment here: Because Christianity was largely an urban phenomenon for its first few centuries, the words “pagan” and “heathen” come from root words meaning “those who live in the country” — and so when I say that Gibson favours “grassroots” religion over the institutional kind, I think we could even argue that Gibson prefers a more “pagan” brand of Christianity, in some sense of the word. (FWIW, I am reminded of one local critic who remarked that there was something “pagan” about those scenes in The Passion of the Christ where Jesus prays while looking at the full moon.)

  • Christian Hamaker

    I’m truly surprised by the reactions of Suderman and Douthat to “Apocalypto.”

    Looking at a clip Ross links to of himself talking about “Apocalypto,” I see that he appears to be a young man, perhaps a Twenty-something. And I believe — correct me if I’m wrong — that Suderman is the same age. That would make them about 10 years younger than I am, and would place them at a point in life when I, too, was more open to the sort of images conveyed by “Apocalypto.”

    I hate to sound like an old fogey, being in my mid-30s, but I wonder if, when it comes to “Apocalypto” reactions, it’s an age thing.