“The Jaguar of Judah”

What troubled me most about Apocalypto was that it seemed like a movie of false promises: a grand historical epic, the journey of the hero, the exploration of the pageantry of a power in its decline, man’s inhumanity to man, the hope within exile, the terror of conquest. What we get is a National Geographic spectacle with some nods to a deeper theme. Hinting at the portrayal of the Mayan civilization in decline, Apocalypto could be the story of any great power in its decline, from Rome to America: a people in exile, a civilization in decline; a powerful warring, arrogant people, building testimonials to its greatness, fascinated by its ideas of beauty, focused on its entertainment, with both the religious and political leaders playing to their people. We see a country that is decadent, lazy, rich, and strong – yet rotting and dying from within. None of this imagery had eluded the movie’s director, Mel Gibson, who should know a thing or two about being in exile by now.

“What do you want?” –Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood)

Apocalypto begins in a pre-Columbian Mayan village, with a tribe out on a hunting expedition, led by Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead) and his son, Jaguar Paw. Their village is invaded by Others who delight in tormenting them. The survivors are trotted back to the home of these others, where they are further degraded. Then Jaguar Paw escapes and has to elude his tormentors as he makes his way back to rescue his wife. The time period and the setting are pretty much a red herring. With such a grand historical backdrop, we have little grasp of the players and the story is reduced to little more than a “Rambo of the Forest,” with the hope that the audience will be satisfied with the story of a family man who wants to get home.

Still, there are several issues that the movie touches upon, since the story of a people being kidnaped by another group of people, suffering through the passage to their destination, only to be sold on auction blocks has a special resonance with me.

We could start with an examination of the process of colonization, the forced absorbing of one people’s story by another. Again, the clearest way I can relate this to people is by telling the biblical story of Daniel. Many people are familiar with the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, but the back-story is what I’m interested in. The story is set against the exile of Israel. The Israelites were taken to a foreign land, not all of them, but their best and brightest young men. In effect, the exile robbed Israel of its brain trust, its future. Those men were in turn re-enculturated: indoctrinated with new language, new customs, even new names, in Jaguar Paw’s case, he was renamed “Almost”.

Much of this stemming from fear.

“Fear is a sickness. It will crawl into the soul of anyone who engages it.” –Flint Sky

Fear stultifies the soul and manifests itself in a variety of many, many of which we see played out in our social landscape. We have a fear of “the other”. An aspect of colonialism is its conquest mentality that works by making other cultures less than human, debasing one while exalting the colonizer’s. Fear clouds our ability to see one another as Eikons, created in the image of God. Fear, this numbing of our souls, allows us to kill, torture, rape, and take one another into slavery. Slavery was not an institution new to America. The story of the human race is one of the strong oppressing the weak, cycles of violence that need to be broken.

“Behold him, reborn from mud and earth.” –prophetic little girl

If the story of the Bible is one of God slowly wooing humanity back to him, reaching us where we are dealing with us as we are, then that casts a new light on how we ought to view many of our Bible stories. Even in Apocalypto, there is a prophesy of a redeemer of sorts, signs and portents pointing to someone to bring an end to this old way of living.

God is the Great Emancipator, the freedom giver. Christ came as a Liberator; in Him there is neither slave nor free. The problem of evil is solved not in why does it exist, but in what God has done about it. God identifies with the poor and those in pain, liberating them from injustice. The promise of resurrection gives them hope and grounds to struggle for freedom. Christ’s mission was to free us from sin: individual sin and social sin. Suffering arising from the struggle for freedom is liberating, providing a vision of freedom. Our mission is to join with His and, as Jaguar Paw puts it, “seek a new beginning.”

Apocalypto’s tagline of “No one can outrun their destiny” promises much, but delivers little. Once again, history serves as Mel Gibson’s pallette allowing him to paint in his favorite colors, brutal violence inflicted on people, a tortured hero, thoroughly researched history and language, and a near-mythic hero. We see a continuation of Mel Gibson’s fascination with family men who become blood-soaked icons of righteousness by those who seek to oppress him and others. Braveheart. The Patriot. The Passion of the Christ. What we don’t get as clear a sense of is the “why?” As with The Passion of the Christ, none of the action is put into a context. What we have is a beautifully rendered action flick in the guise of an epic, and as such, disappoints.

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