What Has Mel Gibson Got Against the Church?

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For the Christian viewer, the biggest question about Mel Gibson's movie Apocalypto is: why does its hero turn away from the Cross at the end?

All in all, there's not a lot of Christ — passionate or otherwise — in Apocalypto, Mel Gibson's first film since The Passion of the Christ. But a crucifix finally shows up at the film's end, and the film's response to it is surprisingly equivocal.

The movie tells the story of a peaceful 16th-century jungle-dweller named Jaguar Paw. The first quarter of the film presents his idyllic village as a kind of Eden. The second quarter is a vision of Hell, as a raiding party for the nearby Mayan empire torches the town, rapes the women and drags the men to the Mayan capital as featured guests at a monstrous and ongoing sacrifice to the gods. JP watches in horror as a priest has several of his friends spread-eagled on squat stone, then hacks out their still-beating hearts and displays them to a howling crowd. JP narrowly avoids the same fate, escapes, and spends most of the rest of the film picking off an armed pursuit party, one by one, in classic action-film fashion.

It is only at the very end that Christianity makes a brief but portentous appearance, aboard a fleet of Spanish ships that appears suddenly on the horizon. JP and his long-suffering wife watch from the jungle as a small boat approaches shore bearing a long-bearded, shiny-helmeted explorer and a kneeling priest holding high a crucifix-topped staff. "Should we join them?" asks his wife. "No," he replies: They should go back to the jungle, their home. Roll credits.

Given Gibson's fervent Christianity, you might have expected JP to run up and genuflect. Why does he turn away?

My colleague, film critic Richard Schickel, has observed that Gibson has little use for the institutional Roman Catholic church, preferring a "less mainstream version of his faith." True, but the Traditionalists with whom Gibson is often associated are defined primarily by their objections to the liberalizations under the Second Vatican Council of 1962-5 — not an issue in Jaguar Paw's day.

Another explanation is that the director has always been better at Crucifixions than at Resurrections. Just as the risen Christ seemed like something of a tack-on to The Passion, Mel may have little interest in how Christian culture might reconfigure either the peaceful village-dwellers' way of life or the bloodthirsty Mayans'.

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