Mel Gibson is a deeply troubled man. That was obvious from 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, which subjected its viewers to torture and torments in the name of saving their ‘souls’. But clearly that wasn’t enough for Gibson. It’s as if he sat down and thought, ‘How can I make something even more brutal, horrible and disgusting? Loads of people watched my last film out of morbid curiosity, how do I follow that?’
There’s no doubt that Gibson is good at what he does. It’s just that what he does is artistically, historically and emotionally empty. This is agony for fun, profit, and prophet.
Apocalypto is set in the fictional last days of the Mayan civilisation in Mexico, before the Spanish Catholic conquistadors arrived on their quest for gold. A group of hunter-gatherers live peacefully in the forest, led by Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead). When rampaging city-dwelling warriors sack their village, the women are raped and/or sold into slavery, the men are tied to a rack, and Flint Sky is murdered, leaving his son Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) as symbolic figurehead of the group. The latter just manages to hide his wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son in a well before he too is captured and marched off with the rest of the men.
The captives and their captors eventually reach a hellish pyramid city, where the starved and diseased masses are appeased by human sacrifices to their gods. Covered in a ceremonial blue paint, the prisoners are led to an altar, where their hearts are ripped out and their heads chopped off. The grotesque spectacle only ends when a solar eclipse interrupts Jaguar Paw’s execution. He manages to escape, in ridiculously unbelievable style, and so begins a ridiculously unbelievable chase sequence. But what we are really watching is Mel Gibson being hounded by his own demons.
There is nothing wrong with a movie being horrifically violent. The problem with Apocalypto is that it seems to deliberately distort history in an attempt to justify the holocaust perpetrated against the Mayans by the Spanish and later the Americans. Though an archaeologist was on hand to offer advice, he was allegedly asked if there was any proof something didn’t happen. If there wasn’t, Gibson and his producers could “play”. ‘Never mind that hundreds of years actually passed between the collapse of Mayan city-states and the arrival of the Spanish’, the film seems to be saying, ‘the brown pagans deserved it’. With the exception of Mel’s alter ego and family, of course.
Gibson seems to be deeply troubled by a notion that civilisation is collapsing about his ears. But this is rooted in his Catholic faith rather than a study of modern or historical conditions. In Gibsonworld, brutality and murder are caused by people not being Christian enough. In the real world, it is caused by scarcity of resources. This is something that some modern Mayan people – the Zapatistas – understand, and it guides them in their battle against the modern empire-builders of the Mexican government and their US backers.