Yet that's exactly what Apocalypto seems to do. It opens with a quote from Will Durant, that no civilization is conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within. That's the kind of heavy-handed statement that screams, "Sermon!" Is Gibson using his tale to call the rest of us to repentance? It sure looks like it.
But then Mel tries to have it both ways. His story, set during the period of the Mayans, shows a small, peaceful tribe, tucked in the rainforest, ravaged by Mayan warriors, bent on taking men back to be sacrificed to their god, Kulkulcan. What follows is a fairly brutal, gory, wrenching laundry list of atrocities--Abu Ghraib with nachos. It's ugly. It's mean-spirited. It's hard to blow off as just another Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
And yet, Gibson's facts are grossly misleading. The Mayans were farmers. They didn't live in the rainforest. They didn't live off of primitive hunting. They were astronomers, mathematicians, innovators in writing, art and architecture. Their god, Kulkulcan, was a white, bearded god associated with peace, farming and the resurrection. Sound like anyone you've heard of?
That's when we wonder what Gibson is really up to. It's no secret that he wears his cross to the right of the Pope. Could he be trying to say that the Spanish Conquest of America was an act of liberation? What better way to make the case that Cortes and company were a 16th-century Seventh Army than to equate Mayan civilization with the death camps of the Holocaust?
In doing so, Apocalypto seems to be saying that one of Catholicism's most shameful moments--in granting approval to conquest and enslavement of indigenous peoples--was really an act of charity. For all its action-based spills and thrills--and this film has more than its share--that's still a pretty offensive message, maybe even as offensive as suggesting that the Jews were to blame for the Roman execution of Christ.
Whatever the case, in the absence of a Mayan version of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, Mel Gibson may have finally found a group he can malign with impunity.
Gibson can't malign Indians with impunity as long as some of us are here to correct the record.
For more on the story, see Apocalypto Now.