Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Empires of death: Apocalypto (2006)

By Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 28, 2023 | In Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast

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Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is one of those works of art whose reputation has suffered from its circumstances. Its release in late 2006, two years after The Passion and six month after Gibson’s infamous DUI, more or less coincided with the director’s blacklisting from Hollywood. Thus Apocalypto tends to be overlooked by critics, despite having been hailed as a masterpiece by the likes of Scorsese, Tarantino, Edgar Wright, and Spike Lee.

Apocalypto has also been attacked for its portrayal of “first peoples”. Set in Mesoamerica immediately before first contact with the Spanish, it features a protagonist from a small forest tribe who is captured by Mayans for the purpose of human sacrifice (depicted as the mass-scale brutality it was) and must try to escape back to his family.

Gibson’s depiction of Mesoamerican peoples is sensitive and sympathetic but not PC. Rather than a triumphalistic depiction of evil, Gibson wanted this film to make us reflect on the decadence of the modern West and in particular the American Empire. The film is about a culture of death not unlike our own.

Filmed, like The Passion, in a language most people have never heard, Apocalypto is a stunningly ambitious recreation of a lost civilization, but also a thoroughly entertaining chase movie. Gibson is known for his singular approach to cinematic violence, and Apocalypto gives ample opportunity to discuss the specific artistic choices that are overlooked when we wave off all movie “blood and guts” as the same.


Essay by the film’s historical consultant

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