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‘Apocalypto’: method or madness?

Professor Hibbs dissects Gibson's pic

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Mel Gibson’s a wild and crazy guy, and his latest film, “Apocalypto,” is a well-made but senselessly over-violent chase film with damn little on its twisted mind, except maybe to say the Mayan Indians needed Christ on their side.

“Wrong!” says Thomas Hibbs, distinguished professor of ethics and culture and dean of the honors college at Baylor University. His take:

In a year in which the Academy is celebrating foreign films such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Volver” and multilingual films such as “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Babel,” Gibson’s “Apocalypto” revives what is perhaps the most foreign of all languages in recent film, Yucatec Mayan.

“Apocalypto” detects in this ancient world the hubris of the Mayan empire; one of its leaders proclaims his people to be “masters of time.” But it also detects the admirable character traits embodied in the village life of indigenous cultures. Indeed, the film contains a blistering, if implicit, critique of the calculative individualism so prized in modern, Western capitalist society.

Wisdom about the ravenous nature of human desire, which unleashes the potential destruction of all of nature, is expressed in an oral tradition about the human animal, which includes the following insight: “I saw a hole in the man. Deep, like a hunger he will never fill.”

Here lessons of natural ecology merge with an ethical warning.

Despite the reasonable objection to the film’s portrayal of ancient Mayan civilization exclusively in terms of its human sacrifice, the film’s portrayal of local village life involves a kind of defense of the integrity and magnanimity of an indigenous culture. It captures the rootedness of that culture in a particular time and place, inseparable from its rich and risky interaction with the natural world in which it is embedded.

One senses the intimacy of the members of the community and the near absence of anything like modern privacy; yet there is no hint of the pornographic or of manipulative individualism. Instead, communal relations are grounded in a remarkable degree of trust, even reverence, and certainly a sense of honor.

In one important respect, “Apocalypto” is a very different film from “The Passion of the Christ.” Whereas the earlier film focused relentlessly on the most singular claim in the history of world religions and demanded of the audience a personal reckoning with that claim, the new film allows the audience a certain imaginative distance from its narrative.

It thus invites varying interpretive stances toward the world it depicts.

In the final scene, the film’s protagonist, Jaguar Paw, and his family “seek a new beginning,” the very meaning of the term “apocalypse.”

But their destiny, whether and where they might make a new start, remains tantalizingly uncertain.

(Thomas Hibbs also reviews films for National Review Online.)

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