Monday, January 15, 2007


Recently I went with some seminarians and young people of the parish to see Mel Gibson's new film Apocalypto. I hadn't read any of the reviews although, like everyone else, I'd heard it was violent. There was a strange atmosphere in Screen 13 at Cineworld, Wandsworth, before it began. People were talking much more loudly than we Brits usually do in public places. I got the impression many of the people there were a bit nervous about what they were going to see.
In the Anglo-Saxon world we've grown used to watching films for the spectacle rather than for any message the director might be seeking to transmit. I think that's a shame because if we reduce the screen to visual stimulation we deny its power as a language and so its relevance as an art. As we left I was disappointed that most of the comments we overheard reflected an incredibly superficial understanding of what had just watched.

I've now had a chance to read many of the reviews. The film is acclaimed for its spectacle but often slated for the violence and for its supposed 'anachronisms' - it is claimed for example that the murals in the temple reflect Mayan art of different periods and also Aztec images. I have to admit I didn't spot that!
It is certainly not a film for the squeamish but is it any more violent than 'Saving Private Ryan'? How is it that critics who rejoiced in the brutality of 'Kill Bill' are now suddenly repulsed by Apocalypto? The only answer I can come up with, given the tone of their reviews, is that they don't like Mel Gibson because they don't like what he is trying to say with the film.

Does it really matter that the art in the Temple is from different ages and cultures? Possibly it does but not because of historical inaccuracies. Rather perhaps Gibson is using the Mayans to represent something much wider: all those South American civilisations that went in for human sacrifice. It is not a film about the Mayans. It is a film about the death of civilisation.

The key to interpreting the film is given in the quotation from W. Durant words that first appear on the screen: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." These days a revisionist reading of the Spanish Conquest of South America is very much in vogue. We have gone from Spanish Conquistadores taking the great benefits civilisation and Christianity to a reading of history that exalts the previous civilisations and associates Christianity with European imperialism imposed upon a noble people. This is now so widespread that recently we were even treated to the spectacle of a newly elected South American president sacrificing to the pagan gods before taking office!

In Apocalypto Gibson is challenging this romantic and fanciful reinterpretation. The Spanish when they appear seem to carry no weapons. There is only a friar bearing a Cross. The Mayans are the ones practising human sacrifice. Gibson juxtaposes two civilisations without comment leaving us to ask whether what is symbolised by the Cross is truly worse than the cult of the Sun?

But at another level the film isn't about the Mayans and the Spanish at all. Apart from the language there is something surprisingly modern about the dialogue in the film. When we are taken to the great Mayan city we see not an ancient civilisation but a modern one: we observe a 'culture of death'. Life is valued for what it can do, old age is despised. We see debauchery, greed, selfishness, dishonesty, abuse of power. Reading the faces of the men and women of that city we recognise in them the faces of the people of our time, faces that we see everyday. Durant's words become a warning to us: "A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within".

At the end of the film the main protagonist heads back into the forest for a new beginning. Gibson's message is that our civilisation is decadent and dying. At the threshold of the new Millennium it needs to begin again, the culture of death has to give way to a culture of life.

It is a shame that when filming The Passion Gibson turned down the invitation to meet Pope John Paul. Had he done so he would have met a man with whom he has many things in common, but a man altogether more optimistic because he had taken to heart Christ's words: "Be not afraid!".

Like St Augustine, Pope John Paul was not simply a witness to a dying civilisation. He was a witness also to a new one being born. In his Letters to Young People he invited them to take part in constructing a new culture of life. That means also having the courage to respond if Christ is calling you to a specific vocation such as the priesthood or religious life.