What Has Mel Gibson Got Against the Church?

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The third possibility, it seems to me, is that Gibson does know — and wants no part of it. I tend toward that last one because it reflects a learning curve of my own. About a year ago I visited an exhibit on another Mexican civilization, the Aztecs, at New York's Guggenheim Museum. The show was cleverly arranged. Visitors walked up the Guggenheim's giant spiral, the first few twists of which were devoted to the Aztecs' stunning stylized carvings of snakes, eagles and other god/animals, and explanations of how the ingenious Aztecs filled in a huge lake to lay the foundation for Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.

It was only about halfway up the spiral — when it had become harder to run screaming for an exit — that one encountered a grey-green stone about three feet high. It was sleek and beautiful — almost like a Brancusi sculpture, I thought — until I read the label. It was a sacrifice stone of the sort in the movie. Not a reproduction, not a non-functioning ceremonial model, but the real thing. People had died on this. I felt shocked and a little angry — it was like coming across a gas chamber at an exhibit of interior design.

But I kept walking, and at the very top of the museum I encountered another object that might be considered an answer to the sinister rock: a stone cross, carved after the Spanish had conquered the Aztecs and were attempting to convert them to Catholicism. Rather than Jesus's full body, it bore a series of small relief carvings: his head and wounded hands, blood drops — and a sacrificial Aztec knife.

How striking, I thought. Here was a potent work of iconographic propaganda using the very symbols of a brutal religion to turn its values inside out, manipulating its images so that they celebrated not the sacrifice, but the person who was sacrificed. Visually, at least, it seemed an elegant and admirable transition. And after seeing Apocalypto, I wondered why Gibson hadn't created the cinematic equivalent: an ode to the progression out of savagery, through the vehicle of Christianity.

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