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Mel Gibson's bloody Apocalypto argues some empires are better than others. 

click to enlarge Run through the jungle: Rudy Youngblood stars in Apocalypto.
  • Run through the jungle: Rudy Youngblood stars in Apocalypto.

Leave it to Mel Gibson, that musclebound papist, to make a history flick in which the conquistadores are the good guys.

I don't want to ruin the end of Apocalypto, Gibson's blood-drenched, two-hour-plus epic, so I won't tell you how the Catholic Church saves the day. Suffice it to say that if you paid attention in World History class, you'll see the end coming from across the Caribbean Sea.

On its face, Apocalypto is a classic chase film, set in Central America at the onset of the European conquest. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is taken captive by marauding Mayan warriors, who raze his peaceful village. Butchery ensues, but Jaguar Paw hides his pregnant-to-bursting wife (Dalia Hernandez) and son under considerable duress. (It's obvious whom we're supposed to root for: Mr. and Mrs. Paw have benefited nicely from ancient Mayan dentistry.) As wife and child tremblingly await his return, Jaguar Paw and the other villagers are herded toward a grim fate under the cruel eye of their captor, Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo).

Fair warning: Gibson hasn't lost the subtle touch that brought us Passion of the Christ: You'll see a jaguar tear open a human face, and blood spurt from a head wound like water from a balky faucet. One of Gibson's camera angles is from the POV of a severed head. It's about as subtle as a blowjob joke made in the film's exposition.

But I'll say this for Gibson, who directed, produced and co-wrote: He knows how to stage a chase. Jaguar Paw's attempt to escape Zero Wolf is fraught and taut. And though the action relies way too much on lucky breaks, I'll let that slide in exchange for the movie's breathless pacing, and its lush depictions of the Mexican landscape.

The captured villagers, meanwhile, only gradually realize where they're headed. It's perhaps hard to believe they'd be ignorant of their own centuries-old cultural practices, but their dawning horror does add dramatic tension. And along the way, they will see the cruelties of empire: deforested jungle, emaciated slaves, and of course the money shot of a Mesoamerican history flick: the bloody sacrificial rite, complete with still-beating hearts and heads bouncing down the stairs.

Throughout Jaguar Paw's odyssey, Gibson's camera jumps from mystifying barbarism to mystifying barbarism, playing up the alien aspect of each. As a result, Mayan culture seems befuddling both to Jaguar Paw and to us. Much has been made of the movie's largely native cast, and the fact that its dialogue is in Yucatec Maya (with subtitles). But in the ways that count, Apocalypto is told from a European, rather than a native, point of view.

Because, see, Gibson wants to make something more than a mere actioner. As he says in the film's PR, "[M]any of the things that happened right before the fall of the Mayan civilization are occurring in our society now." (I can already hear the pro-life crowd comparing abortion to blood offerings atop the Temple of the Sun.) And lurking behind the foliage, along with the tree frogs and the snakes, is the history lesson Gibson wants to teach.

To an extent, he succeeds. In one of the film's more insightful moments, a Mayan priest confesses that his people are in "days of great lament" -- with plagues spreading and crops dying. But against this harsh reality, the priest offers a triumphalist rhetoric that might sound familiar: "We are a people of destiny," the priest proclaims, before performing a feat of astronomical prowess to prove it. Suddenly, the meaning behind these rituals becomes clear: We see them in terms of a politician's pandering ... and a people's desperate need to feel in control.

Clearly, Gibson wants to examine both the cruelties and insecurities of empire. It's a subject he's considered before, as in Braveheart, and there's no debate that Mesoamerican cultures were capable of barbarism. (In fairness, though, Mayan rituals were less egregious than those of the Aztecs and other nearby cultures.) There's really no place for PC fables about native cultures living in harmony with nature or each other. As the film suggests, pre-Columbian societies were capable of despoiling the environment on their own, thank you very much.

So, yeah. I could almost embrace Gibson's larger message ... except he keeps loading the dice. The film begins with an epigraph that claims empires can be destroyed only if they weaken themselves first. (It helps when the other guys have all the guns, of course, but the quote doesn't say that.) Gibson's narrative includes a suspiciously Messianic prophecy told by a disease-ravaged girl, and concludes with a deus ex machina denouement.

By that time, the Mayan empire has been rendered so vile that even smallpox is transformed: It's no longer a disease Europeans unknowingly bring with them, but a New World strain of the Seven Plagues of Egypt. By implication, the Spanish conquest is not just one empire outdoing another's rapaciousness, but the instrument of God's will -- dispensing justice to savages who richly deserve it.

That is, of course, exactly how the Spaniards saw themselves ... and much damage was done thereby.

Gibson would acknowledge that, I'm sure. He's described the anti-Semitic passages of Passion as reflecting on the sinful condition of all people, not just Jews. So no doubt he'd say this film's lessons apply to any empire -- even those that espouse Christianity.

Still, don't expect a sequel to pick up where Apocalypto leaves off.

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