What are we to make of the violence that permeates Mel Gibson's undeniably impressive piece of cinematic art? That was the question Christians were asking themselves in 2004 after the release of The Passion, and it is the same question moviegoers will likely ask themselves after viewing the director's latest, Apocalypto (rated R for intense and graphic scenes of violence as well as other disturbing images).
Telling the story of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a family man and forest dweller whose village is razed by neighboring urbanite Mayans, the movie is successful on nearly all levels. Youngblood and a cast of big-screen newcomers give phenomenal performances (no small feat as all dialogue is spoken in a Mayan dialect with subtitles), Gibson's visual direction and pacing are spot-on, and rarely have audiences been treated to so perfect a merging of action and score. But what about its most savage elements?
Secular critics betray more than a whiff of priggishness in their protestations of Apocalypto's bloodletting, considering that the same reviewers commended Quentin Tarantino's gore-fest Kill Bill and applauded the high body counts in Martin Scorsese's work as "gritty." So why do so many turn into fainting Victorians in the face of Gibson's brutality? Are they applying a double standard simply because they don't care for the man? I actually doubt it.
There is something different in Gibson's application of violence. The objections seem to lie not just in Gibson's realistic portrayal of cruelty but in the judgment he brings to it. We know that the Mayans practiced ritual human sacrifice (just as we know that Islamo-fascists behead captives), but to show it in such a way as to elicit righteous indignation is considered the height of bad taste.
The idea that evil cultures exist and that people must sometimes struggle against them is no longer popular in Hollywood. While at times he concentrates too much on the veins and tendons of the bloody business, Gibson is an able ambassador for this truth.