Monday, December 11, 2006

Apocalypto: Gibson's Theology Still on Display


In Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, viewers of his previous two films will experience the familiar: brutal violence, fierce action, and a powerful story line. The movie is confidently made, and Gibson is to be commended for re-thinking the genre and putting a grand-scale story over superficial and glossy puff pieces. It is unashamedly bold, and a marvelous experience. (That is, if you can stomach the violence, which my wife could not.) The anonymous actors are surprisingly engaging, even endearing, capable of saying an awful lot in a few words, a trait Hollywood usually pays actors millions to attempt. If you couldn't already tell, I am a Gibson apologist, who appreciates an artist willing to tell big stories in an age where political correctness at best, and rampant liberalism at worst has often limited the scope to agendas and feel-good defenses of relativism.

But knowing that Gibson is an openly devout Catholic, I was interested in seeing how theology would influence his works post-Passion. Now that Gibson was "out of the closet," how would his faith intersect with his art? Perhaps I was looking for it, but his theology is certainly there. While the movie is ultimately a sociological morality tale, Gibson's faith and cynical understanding of man is prominent, guiding the story to a place of real depth, not the pretended anguish so common in Hollywood.

The most frequent line in all of scripture is the command, "Do not be afraid." This is the advice Jaguar Paw's father gives to him as his village is ravaged by another tribe. The advice serves as the basic moral struggle within the main character's journey, and it mirrors many Biblical characters. John recalls these words in Revelation that Jesus said to him. God said it to Abraham, Moses said it to the Israelites, and Gabriel said it to both Mary and Joseph. The idea of being fearless in the face of adversity is in many ways the definition of faith, and Gibson's own life struggles seem to have convinced him of how important that message is. The journey of Jaguar Paw is very similar to the journey of Christ in The Passion, who both are forced to take journeys towards death, and who both display the faith of martyrs.

That's not to say Gibson's view of humanity is very optimistic. In response to the overly positive theologies that were born in the 1960s, many Catholics have responded by reclaiming the sinful nature of man. (Sad that such a nature would ever need to be "reclaimed.") Modernist hopes of world peace rested on faulty and convenient dreams that man could overcome himself. Perhaps no one has done more to dispute this overly positivistic theology than Benedict XVI, who disowned many of the Vatican II changes and theologies that exalted man too highly. Gibson's own far-right branch of Catholicism, which I believe would make him a sedevacontist, even rejects the modern Catholic church, and certainly many of the popular theologies (Liberation Theology, for example) that put faith in man's ability to build the Kingdom of God on earth. Apocalypto goes against such a belief, and reminds the viewer that kingdom-building is a very perilous business.

Gibson, who rather famously does not support the Iraq War, offers a prophetic voice with regards to the War on Terror. As those in England refuse to even use the phrase "War on Terror", and the Iraq Study Group propose leaving before the job is done, it's not hard to see the way Western civilization is in the process of collapsing in on itself, ready for a pouncing from outside forces. But this need not be a death sentence. The West, whose prosperity has made it fat, happy, and far too confident that its culture does not need defending, may very well reclaim its ideological tenets in time to defend itself.

Until then, Apocalypto tells the story of what happens internally to a culture that turns on itself. When a culture is unable to preserve the very fragile ideas and cultural axioms that have gone before it, it is doomed to fall. Anybody that has spent any amount of time in academia knows the kind of thinking that goes on when a culture hates itself. The wisdom of the ages is lost as we bludgeon ourselves with guilt, and refuse to listen to the bearers of our own tradition. In the midst of all of this tumult, it seems Gibson says we are to heed God's frequent command: "Do not be afraid." I agree.

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