When Apocalypto was announced¯a film set in the waning days of the Mayan Empire, with a no-star cast speaking Yucatec Maya¯you could be forgiven for thinking Waterworld . Well, Apocalypto has been unveiled, and it is more Apocalypse Now Redux than the Kevin Costner debacle. In fact, Apocalypto is so fine an example of pure filmmaking¯a simple story told through the eyes of an appealing hero, sheer kinetic energy, and well-cut successions of vivid images¯that I am tempted to compare director Mel Gibson’s achievement with that of a D.W. Griffith, if the parallel were not too provocative, and for all the wrong reasons.
Cautionary tales typically are set in some dystopian future: From Brazil and Gattaca to Gibson’s own Mad Max trilogy. Whether because of nuclear fallout or a technocracy that has reduced men to machines, the future is ours to fear. Apocalypto takes us back so we may contemplate the future¯and cautions us that fear itself is the new Bomb.
The story begins with a gross-out of a boar hunt, as Maya forest dwellers kill then dismember their prey and play frat-boy pranks on one unfortunate, whose lack of fertility is the village joke. The center of this group and chief instigator is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), son of the wise village elder, who will bequeath to J.P. a moral imperative that will prove the young man’s salvation: "Do not be afraid."
Life for these villagers is soon overturned when Holcane warriors on a mission from the king come storm-trooping through the forest, raping, pillaging, and packaging up what’s left. Jaguar Paw hides his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son in a well, beyond the scope of the invaders. Unfortunately, they are left there¯as Jaguar Paw and his surviving confreres are taken as booty to the capital to be paraded before the king and queen, then offered as sacrifices to the sun god in the hope of reversing a kingdom-wide plague.
The world of this Mayan kingdom is a catalogue of modern maladies: from decadent overconsumption, to warfare as pride-pumping and scape-goating chaos, to mindless assaults on the environment. Those sick with plague, even children, are isolated and marginalized. The elderly are thought worthless because "useless." Even the king and queen’s kid is an obese little creep. And the symbol of religious authority is a high-priest precursor to the TV evangelist¯master manipulator and personal friend of the deity who, in this case, uses an anticipated solar eclipse to shock and awe the crowds with how well he has satisfied the blood lust of their god. An unholy alliance between throne and altar, indeed.
Speaking of blood¯there’s gore galore. As usual, Gibson does not spare his audience the viscera of war and sacrifice. The Mayas’ is a brutal way of life that makes severe demands on men, women, even children¯all are called to steel themselves against pain and privation as a routine of life. Yet they are never reduced to the status of animals, despite every attempt by raw nature and imperial depravity to make it so. The Maya here are always human¯are always us¯and it is their struggle to retain their humanity that provides much of the pathos of this tale. (A great deal of credit must be given for this achievement to the extraordinary performances of the indigenous cast.)
But there are also light and sly moments in Apocalypto , such as the multiple movie references Gibson and his cowriter, Farhad Safinia, sneak in. There’s the soldier who has his swollen eye slit open¯Rocky-like¯so he can see, and the Holcane warrior-leader Zero Wolf’s Ratso Rizzo "I’m walking here!" as a massive felled tree just misses squishing him. Finally, there’s a climactic moment of true unveiling that is rivaled only by that in the original Planet of the Apes .
As for the film genres Gibson plays to: Imagine Wes Craven teaming up with Akira Kurosawa. Horror-film conventions are employed to heighten the tension, and there are moments when I couldn’t help but think of the Seven Samurai . And, as we’re introduced to the ritual slaying of the captives in the capital, I expected to hear a mass singsong, "Two men enter. One man leave." That’s no accident, as Apocalypto’s cinematographer, Dean Semler, also worked on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome .
But at its core, Apocalypto is a story of Bicycle Thief simplicity. Jaguar Paw refuses to be enslaved¯not by the empire, not by fate. He will get back home. He will reclaim his wife, his children, and his place in the world. In short, he will not be afraid. Images of baptism and rebirth punctuate this adventure, including one in which Jaguar Paw literally emerges from the earth as a kind of First Adam Reborn, empowered to become what he already is, a man of nature, of the forest. He is not a new creation but a revitalization of the old. His final confrontation with Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) is a classic example of how mountain, desert, and jungle peoples defeat a more powerful enemy: by pulling him deep into their own, familiar territory. It is, after all, Jaguar Paw’s forest.
Much attention has been paid to Gibson’s allusions to contemporary events as the controlling referent for Apocalypto . Here he is in a Time article back in March: “The fearmongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys.” Oh-kay. In any event, the film works on its own terms, regardless. So whatever you think of Mel Gibson, his beliefs, or his drunken rant, give Apocalypto a chance. It’s not a question of whether Gibson deserves it; if you love cinema, then you deserve it.
The Nativity Story
Hollywood, at least, has declared a truce in the Christmas wars. The Nativity Story is a pious, reverent, if languorous, account of the birth of Jesus, culled from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and has enjoyed generally good reviews from the mainstream media (if not the best opening-weekend box office).
The performances are dignified. The language is generic biblical-epic-speak, in which No Contraction Shall Pass My Lips, O Lord, Lest the Audience Think I Am Speaking English. The angels are suitably translucent. The Three Wise Men provide comic relief¯and are very wise, indeed, as one of them greets the newly born Christ with, “God wrapped in human flesh!” thus presaging the high christology of the Gospel of John by a good ninety years.
Much attention has been paid to the portrayal of Mary. Keisha Castle-Hughes’ performance is sullen, even leaden, and resigned. Yet one must sympathize with any actress given the role of the teenage Mary. The Method is going to fail here, as will sense memory and the odd, querulous "What’s my motivation?" Even when the words of Scripture are spoken verbatim, they seem unceremoniously plopped into the middle of the dialogue, a kind of rote and contractually obligated product placement. This may be why Mel Gibson considered Aramaic for The Passion and Yucatec Maya for Apocalypto the best solutions to the problem of stilted language: With the possible exception of Fr. Mitch Pacwa , no one knows what is being said, and each audience member is free to supply his or her own inflection to the mental reading of the subtitles.
The Nativity Story does pull off one remarkable feat: You will leave the theater thinking more about Joseph (Oscar Isaac) than perhaps you ever have before. Joseph is a man of noble intentions, concerned with always doing the right thing, even as he makes his appearance in Mary’s life by encouraging a lie. A Roman tax collector has confiscated Mary’s father’s mule in lieu of payment. This mule is Joachim’s livelihood. Joseph buys the mule back from the Romans but tells Mary to tell Joachim that it was simply left behind, so as to spare Joachim’s pride. Here Joseph shows more concern for preserving the dignity of his future father-in-law than he will with preserving his own.
In significant ways it is Joseph who prefigures the life of his adopted son: He does not insist on his rights when it comes to Mary and her pregnancy. He does not apply the penalties of the law. Instead, he walks alongside her, offering her "cover," sharing in the calumnies heaped on her. She assumes her "guilt" (although she has done nothing wrong). And all in the name of doing the will of the Father for the sake of the salvation of the world. Joseph adopts Jesus just as the Father adopts us though Jesus, his only begotten. It is Joseph who will also become another Moses, leading the Tabernacle and the Word from exile in Egypt to the land of prophetic promise (“He will be called a Nazarene”). Here he prefigures Jesus’ own Mosaic role as the ultimate lawgiver (albeit one who incarnates and fulfills perfectly that law so that all we must do¯can do¯is respond lovingly and gratefully). Joseph is a man of grace through and through.
Also striking is how the film illustrates the vast distances between people, literally and figuratively. The perilous, bone-achingly torturous paths one has to traverse just to get from Point A to Point B, from one village to another, never mind from one country to another are mind-boggling for those of us who whine about crowded subways and late buses.
And then there are the distances between the peoples themselves: between Jew and Gentile, between the “righteous” and the outcast, between Herod and his subjects, between Rome and Jerusalem, between the Temple priests and the people aching for absolution, liberation, and peace.
These vast distances are bridged finally not by warriors on horseback challenging Roman tyranny and Herodian decadence on their own terms but by a baby, born in a cave, who is Christ the Lord. It is in the precariousness of life that Life is reborn. It is on the precipice of death that Death is conquered. The vastness of the world will be reduced to the size of an infant, the Second Adam, through whom all of creation will be remade and who will, when lifted up, draw all men to himself.
Parents should be cautioned about bringing very small children to this film, however. There are scenes when Roman violence¯images of crucified and hanged corpses¯may prove too strong. We are reminded here how the Pax Romana was effected¯through terror, and that there’s a shadow over the quaint nativity scene re-enacted under countless Christmas trees¯the Massacre of the Innocents.
But, in the end, if you leave the theater with the declaration of Mary¯”Be it done to me according to thy Word”¯on your lips, then it will be the best ten bucks you have ever spent on anything. Ever.
Why is that man talking to the tree? Ah, the man is bald¯he must be a mystic. So it must be a magic tree. Will the tree talk back? Will the man finally put on some shoes? What planet is he on? Why won’t that elderly couple in the back please shut up? Why do they call it butter flavoring? Is there no real butter in it?
These are just some of the questions you will be asking if you see The Fountain . And I do suggest you see it. I’m certain the film makes sense in writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s mind. Perhaps you will meet Mr. Aronofsky one day, or his lovely wife, the star of the film, Rachel Weisz. Then you can ask him or her: What did it mean when the vegetation consumed the previously bald man who became the conquistador? (Or was it vice versa?)
Hugh Jackman plays a medical researcher trying desperately to find a cure for his wife’s (Weisz) disease, whatever that may be. It involves a tumor in the brain. He would rather experiment on a monkey than spend precious moments with her playing in the snow, because he will not accept that she is going to die, and every moment away from the lab is a moment she draws closer to what she and we know is the inevitable.
For Jackman, death is merely a disease for which there will one day be a cure.
Weisz has made her peace with her approaching demise. She is busy trying to finish up a work of fiction rooted in sixteenth-century Spain, actually an alternate history of Spain. In her book, called The Fountain , the beautiful queen and a handsome conquistador (Weisz and Jackman again) believe they have found among the Maya of New Spain (we now know why it was called Apocalypto ) the location of the Tree of Life previously seen in Genesis 3. If they can crack the code of Mayan myth and find the tree, they will have made the discovery of the ages: immortality¯the fountain of youth!
But then again . . . nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition .
The self-flagellating, flesh-hating, life-denying Grand Inquisitor wants to ensure that the Tree of Life remains buried deep in the depths of world mythology. If people lived forever, there would be no chance to send them to hell. And what is the fun of being Grand Inquisitor if you can’t send people to hell?
And so our gallant conquistador and his queen must first evade the Holy Office, then do battle with a mighty Mayan army, in their quest to reverse the Fall and eat of the Tree of Life¯much as modern-day Jackman must do battle with bureaucrats and the NIH in his quest for a cure to reverse his wife’s condition and save her life.
At some point¯actually at several points¯the conquistador is transported to what looks like another planet, perhaps that spoken of in the Mayan myth, where the souls of the dead reside. There he sits in a lotus position and flies around, then talks to the big tree, presumably the Tree of Life.
Is Aronofsky saying that we must all finally accept death as a part of life, which finally releases us to the great All that is Life, so that we become part of the ground which gives life to the tree which buds into fruit which is eaten by birds which are sold at Pet World? (OK, I added that last part.)
But then he seems to negate this imagery, this message. Is Aronofsky then saying that life sucks then you die¯get over it? Who the heck knows. Weisz, even in death, continues to spur Jackman on to finish the story she has begun, the story of the quest for immortality. I only hope this doesn’t spell sequel . . .
Aronofsky’s first film, the lowest-of-low-budgeted Pi , was another film about the search for the sacred, the absolute, about solving an ancient riddle¯and getting nowhere. Even his syncopated and salacious Requiem for a Dream had something to say¯or ask¯about the Meaning of It All. That he asks big questions is to Aronofsky’s credit. That his answers, or lack thereof, often leave the audience scratching their collective pate is not necessarily bad. (At least you have something to chew on at Sizzler besides the Onion Stack Steak.) That The Fountain may in fact amount to nothing more than kaleidescopically pretty pictures is . . . disappointing.
I rather liked the fact that Jackman’s scientist persona refuses to accept his beloved’s death. He shouldn’t. Death is not a part of life. Death is the negation of life, the enemy of life, just as the Grand Inquisitor (Manichean comic-book figure that he is here) is the enemy of true faith in the Gospel of Life. That is why Jesus weeps at the grave of Lazarus. This is not how it was intended to be!
And so the Word that creates life out of nothing invades our world and conquers death. But to find peace in that, one needs faith. And The Fountain is not really about faith, only bizarre¯albeit vivid and engrossing¯imagery and hints of pantheism, if not finally nihilism.
But go and see it for yourself. It’s only 95 minutes long and visually there’s plenty to gawk at. And perhaps the bald man will let you talk to the tree, too. And that couple will finally shut up. And I will learn what is really in this butter thing . . .
Interesting that these three films (four, if you throw in Stranger than Fiction ) issued within such a short period of time have so much on their minds (or, rather, reflect what’s on the minds of their creators): the demands of calling, death as the ultimate insult, and the nature of true sacrifice. If Hollywood isn’t getting the message about what the wider, especially Christian, audience wants to see, these will do for now. After all, it’s Christmas, and it’s the thought, even when a little loopy, that counts.
Anthony Sacramone is the managing editor of First Things .