Advent is a penitential season for us Catholics, and thus a good time to see Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto." "Apocalypto" in Greek means "new beginnings," an optimistic spin on the biblical apocalypse.
The movie is a perfect storm of all of Gibson's artistic obsessions: the fighting underdog, hierarchy (priest and king both) as oppressors, the spiritual need to achieve manliness (and yes, Harvey Mansfield's definition "confidence in a situation of risk" fits pretty well), the bloody simultaneous revelation of man's cruelty and vulnerability -- along with a new emphasis on the eroticism of fertility, which fits perfectly into Gibson's overall theme of the necessity of regeneration.
Sons become men by becoming fathers. Fathers pass onto their sons the gift of manhood. In Mel Gibson's world, men know they need women to become men, and women are known only through men's -- and children's -- need of them. It is heartbreakingly moving, this male need of women, and women apparently respond to it, too, on the visceral level. (According to news reports, more than 80 percent of ticket holders were couples, making "Apocalypto" the oddest date movie of the season.)
Gibson's co-writer suggested to Time magazine last spring that the movie was an environmentalist fable: "The parallels between the environmental imbalance and corruption of values that doomed the Maya and what's happening to our own civilization are eerie," says Farhad Safinia. Gibson muttered that he was attracted to stories of "penitential hardship" (like "Braveheart"), and said: "The fear-mongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys."
So far the people most upset by the film appear to be the tiny band of academic partisans of Mayan civilization. Michael Aakhus, the University of Southern Indiana's resident Maya expert, was unimpressed (and is available for comment, according to his press release): "I had hoped to see some great images of the Maya buildings and wonderful costumes, but I have to admit that I saw neither." Aakhus accused Gibson of exaggerating the brutality of Mayan civilization: "Human sacrifice did occur, but not to the extent that is shown in the film. Ritualized killing is not unknown to us. Our own practice of capital punishment, when looked back on in 500 years, I am sure will appear brutal."
I don't know that Gibson would disagree. He is not a cheerleader for the virtues of our own or any other civilization. Civilizations are created by men: They flower, they corrupt, they die. What he attempts is universal themes -- to portray the darkness in the human heart that every son must confront and conquer to become a father, that every father hopes to give his son the courage to surmount.
Anthony Lane in The New Yorker comes closest to getting Gibson right: "'Apocalypto' is a pathological work of art. ... Contrary to what his detractors say, I don't believe Gibson is roused by violence in itself. What lures him, in his dark remoldings of Catholic iconography, is breakage and restoration -- the deeper and more foul the wounds, the more pressing the need to see them healed. Hence the multiple endings of 'Apocalypto,' at once overpowering and risible."
So in the end, you are forced almost to laugh out loud at how Gibson piles it on, and yet you will leave the theater longing to experience the mythology Mel Gibson tries so hard, and fails, to give to us.
This time, anyway.