"A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within."
- Will Durant
I recently saw Mel Gibson's new film, Apocalypto.
There's been plenty of talk about this film (actually, the talk has been mostly about Mel and his issues). I've read both sides; those who feel the Mayans got misrepresented as pure savages, and those historians who feel Mel actually went a little light on the brutality they were known for enacting on their victims. I can't argue those points, as I'm not an expert on Mayan culture. But I will talk about this incredible film, which I believe, despite intense and often gratuitous violence, every man, husband and father should go and see with his man, husband, and father friends... (please heed the USCCB's complete review of the film's graphic content. Click here for a full review)
Mel Gibson's intent seems to have been to create an action-adventure film rooted in an ancient culture about a man who is trying to get back to his pregnant bride and young son, against all odds. It's ultimately a capture, escape, chase and rescue film. What I found running through it, through the heart-pounding chase scenes and the heart-wrenching violence, was a story of intense love and sacrifice that I still can't stop thinking about.
Apocalypto was riveting from the start, and I instantly felt an affinity for the lead character, whose name is Jaguar Paw. There is a rawness in the film that puts you literally right in the midst of an ancient people; you feel it, breathe it, experience it, as only a good movie or story can let you experience it: the moist jungle, the song of birds, the Mayan dialect, the tools, the tribal humor, the ancient codes and customs, the killing of an animal not for sport but for life, the primal fear in the face of danger. I haven't felt so deeply engrossed in a film since, coincidentally, The Passion of the Christ.
There were moments when I, as a 21st century viewer, felt suspended above all centuries and could feel the throbbing pulse of humanity and our yearning for peace. During a gathering of Jaguar Paw's tribe, in the dance of firelight and storytelling, an elder tells their creation myth of the Man who felt sad and alone. The animals came to him and each in their turn gave him their eyes, their cunning, their strength so he would not be afraid. But wise old Owl saw this would not be enough. The Man would indeed grow strong and conquer fear, but Owl could see a hole in the Man's heart. This hole could not be filled by anything in the world.
It is in the end love that fills the lead character's heart; it is love that drives him on to incredible feats as he weaves his way through one challenge after another in the jungle. Love leads him back to his family. And what he finds in the end, after witnessing first hand the complete antithesis of love, the utter contempt for Man's life in the hands of the Mayans, is a "new beginning."
Despite the gore, and there was too much of it, there were glimmers of hope and light. A young girl left to lead all the little ones after her village is ravaged, who says "Don't worry. I will watch over them. They are mine now." An older mother led away captive prays fervently to a mysterious Ixchel, a moon goddess, to watch over the children (Our Lady of Guadalupe foreshadowed? She stands on the Moon and in front of the Sun). Jaguar Paw's father is an amazing man of courage as well, whose steady advice to his son is "Do not be afraid." In the end, the watery birth of Jaguar's little baby, and his wife's distant look to the visitors who enter their life seems to set the tone for that new beginning they long for, out of a culture of death and into a new life. Perhaps we living in our modern age, still dealing with the scourge of 4 million abortions a year, capital punishment, and the threat of more legalized euthanasia, can learn from this film to treasure, in the midst of such a violent culture, the beauty of life.
(For an article on Our Lady of Guadalupe, the culture of death in the ancient Americas and America today, click here. Content is graphic with disturbing images.)
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