Mel Gibson's Apocalypto: Strength for the Battle

By: Christopher West


Remember Mel Gibson’s graphically violent movie Apocalypto? It  generated a lot of criticism in the media when it came out.   USA Today asked, “How can Gibson disgust us?   Let us count the ways: There’s a face chewed off by a panther, a spear impaling a man’s skull, a chest ripped open by a blunt arrowhead and a head spurting blood as if a spigot has been turned on.”  Having seen the movie for myself, I can tell you that’s not the half of it.   What could Mel possibly be trying to say?   Is he merely a blood-crazed maniac as the media would have us believe?   Before I share my thoughts, I need to put my immediate reaction to the film in context.

It’s All About Children!

For the month or so before I saw the movie, with my wife caring for our newborn son, I had been managing both our busy home and my busy office.   I had been dividing lots of 18 hour days between helping our older kids with their school work, laundry, grocery shopping, preparing meals, getting ready for a course I would soon be teaching, and trying to meet my publisher’s deadline for a new book I was writing.  I try sincerely to practice what I preach about embracing the sacrifices that come with living a Catholic marriage.   But I’m a fallen man.   I entertain the same questions that everyone else does — especially at 4 a.m. when little Isaac can’t seem to understand how desperate I am for sleep.   That’s when I wonder, Are all these sacrifices really worth it?   And I’ll pray, Dear God, can this pleeeeeease be the last time we go through this new baby craziness?

It was in this state of mind that I went with some friends to see what one reviewer dubbed “Mesoamerican Rambo.”   To be honest, I was hoping a night out with the guys would offer a little “escape” from the pressures of life with a newborn.   I came out of that theater not only renewed in confidence that every sacrifice I make for my wife and children is well worth it.   I came out of that theater wanting to have another baby right away.   Bring it on!  Fertility, I think, is the interpretive key of the film.   That’s what this small tribal village valued most.   The sexual boast among the men was not how many women they’d bedded, but how many children they’d fathered.   Of the numerous reviews I read, not a single one grasped this basic point.   The common sentiment is bafflement and the common accusation, even from movie critics within the Church, is that if Gibson is trying to offer a message of hope in the midst of cultural decline, “that’s not at all clear.”

Renewed Strength for the Battle

Maybe I was smokin’ something, but it was crystal clear to me.   Mel, himself, says the movie is about “the spark of life that exists even in a culture of death.”   That’s precisely what I took away from it.   This movie — not despite its graphic violence, but in and through it — offers us a gripping visual allegory for understanding what spouses are up against if they are going to take God’s plan for marriage seriously.  I’m not gung-ho about seeing hearts ripped from people’s chests, heads cut off, or people eaten by jaguars.   However, if Gibson, as an artist, was trying to depict what the spiritual battle might actually look like, one could argue that he may not have gone far enough.   The devil is no red cartoon character with a pitchfork.   He’s a hideous demon who prowls around like a ravenous lion (or, shall we say jaguar?) looking for people to devour (see 1 Pt 5:8).   He wants our heads, our hearts, and — perhaps most of all — our fertility.   He’s after our children (see Rev 12).

From the beginning, the devil’s enmity has been aimed directly at matri-mony, which means, “the call to motherhood” (see Gen 3:15).   This was the raging battle that Jaguar Paw, the main character of Apocalypto, found himself at the center of.   With unflagging determination, he overcame insurmountable challenges in order to save his wife, his son, and their — by the end of the film — newborn baby from certain doom. That baby was the life asserting itself in the face of so much death.   That baby was the light shining in the darkness and, thanks to Jaguar Paw’s valor, the darkness did not overcome it (see Jn 1:5).   That’s what I want to fight for in life.   And that’s why I came out of the theater recharged to embrace the challenge of being a husband and father.   Thanks, Mel.   I needed that.

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