Ever since its release in 2004, Christians have been clamoring for a sequel to the Passion of the Christ, hands down, the bloodiest Christian movie ever made.
“Why did you make this film… I think there’s a tendency for all of us to take that event for granted. And cinematically I think its been sanitized a fair bit so that it becomes ineffective, ineffectual, not emotional and I wanted to illustrate the extent of the sacrifice.”
Many reviewers were disgusted with the Passion’s bloodshed, calling it an epic snuff film, but Christians saw in it God’s manifested love for all humanity. A meaning which Gibson, in the film’s opening quotation, invited audiences to see.
The Passion went on to become the highest-grossing independent and rated R film, earning 610 million dollars worldwide. It’s not surprising, therefore, to see why Christians want a sequel. But they’ve totally missed the one Gibson gave them.
In 2006, Gibson followed the Passion with Apocalypto, a story which is a continent, culture, and millennium removed from the crucifixion. Apart from the arrival of the Spanish at the film’s end, nothing in it appears to do with Christianity, even though just as bloody as the Passion of the Christ.
Christians understood the Passion’s brutality but they could not swallow Apocalypto’s. According to one Christian reviewer the Passion’s “very subject matter – crucifixion – lent itself to such explicit imagery…” But concerning Apocalypto’s violence, they had to conclude, “with no theological framework to guide it, it’s difficult to see how this gruesome film could be recommended for Christian audiences of any age.”
The irony is striking since Gibson has gone to great links to connect the two films.
One of the most obvious is in language. To date, Gibson has directed five films and yet only two, the Passion and Apocalypto, have been filmed using ancient languages which few speak or understand today.
The title is also telling. Apocalypto is Greek for “I reveal” and is related to the Greek word Apocalypse, Revelation, the last book in the New Testament. If we consider that the Passion was Gibson’s meditation on the Gospels, at the beginning of the New Testament, Apocolypto suggests itself as a corresponding bookend.
But even more substantial are the many ways Apocalypto echoes the earlier film. Opening, for instance, like the Passion, with a white text quotation on a black background from which it fades to a slow zoom on a wooded landscape. Here, Apocolypto introduces Jaguar Paw and his tribe who like Jesus are hunted, captured, and ripped from the forest to endure an agonizing journey, carrying a beam to a city and a hill of execution where they’re laid on their backs and pierced through as a sacrifice. Here, the film also echoes the Passion in the darkening of the sky.
But here’s where the echoes end. The passion is nearly over. Jesus is taken down from the cross. And in one final scene, rises from the dead. But Apocolypto goes on for another half in which Jaguar Paw escapes and races back to save his wife and child in the place where the film began. There he must confront and kill his enemies, one by one, before the waters rise too high. But the arrival of the Spanish, distracts the last of his pursuers. And after rescuing his family, together they seek a new beginning in the forest.
Apocolypto and the Passion are two sides of the same archetypal coin. The Passion may begin in the Garden of Gethsemane but its more importantly an allusion to the Garden of Eden. The serpent suggests that Jesus is here undergoing the temptation of Adam and Eve. Whose failure, according to the Bible, cast the mold for every human person. But Jesus rejects the serpent and thereby begins to break and remake that mold. He freely surrenders and endures mankind’s banishment from garden / the curse of suffering and death, so that by sharing in our suffering he might share with us his resurrection and victory over sin. His new humanity. Thus after death, he rises naked, as Adam and Eve did before the fall, the symbol of humanities return to the garden.
The Passion, therefore, isn’t just a story of a brutalized man. It’s the story of how the only innocent man suffered to become the representative of Everyman. And it’s Everyman, that Gibson shows us in Apocolypto. That’s why it too begins with an allusion to the Garden of Eden, seen in the lush foliage of the forest, the happiness and near nudity of its inhabitants as well as a story echoing Genesis’ account of creation and man’s fall.
“I saw a hole in man’s heart…
This is the story of humanity and Apocolypto. And the city which takes Jaguar Paw and his tribe captive is the embodiment of man’s corruption and fall, subjugating people and nature in it’s perpetual quest for more. The fact that Gibson has pulled the film’s opening quote from something which was origina lly said of ancient Rome, indicates that the city represents more than one particular society. And in the pile of bodies, we’re shown an allusion to the destruction wrought by other empires. In fact, Gibson has said that the film is equally about the destruction wrought by the United States right now.
And its in this symbolic city that Jesus repeatedly gives himself, reversing man’s selfish trend. While some have called the Passion an anti-semitic film, its with and for the Jews that Jesus actually suffers. Isaiah 53 is the climax of a much longer passage in which God promises to return the Jews from their war captivity in Babylon. And the God’s servant suffers with Israel in their exile in Babylon to return them to the promised land. The fact that the word Passion (to suffer) is closely related to the word ComPassion (to suffer with) shouldn’t be missed. Jesus isn’t just one man suffering. He is Everyman suffering. And in Apocolypto, Gibson reinforces Jesus’ Compassion in the Passion by comparing and contrasting scenes like these. The graphic violence of these films is intended to remind us of the real world in which real humans actually experience these things. And the real God who endured nothing less with and for them.
And through his comPassion he returns humanity to the garden.
This there-and-back again plot is central to the bible, occurring again and again, representing man’s plight and hope for redemption. Jaguar Paws second half escape is symbolic of man’s struggle to find salvation in fleeing the selfishness of the city. Gibson also appears here to be alluding to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies but discussion of that will have to wait for the comments below.
Deus Ex Machina
This leads us to the film’s end which has been criticized as a Deus Ex Machina, a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is abruptly resolved by an unexpected intervention of some new event, in essence lazy storytelling. Nothing in the film prepares the audience for the arrival of the Spanish.
But its important to note that the same was also true of the resurrection in the Passion of the Christ. While the rest of the film focuses on Christ suffering, the short resurrection scene at the end of the film occurs abruptly and appears tacked on. The film zooms in on Jesus at the beginning and zooms out on his dead body in the end. But The resurrection scene, with Jesus’ sideways exit, appears as something entirely new.
And that should remind of the true meaning of a Dues Ex Machina. It refers to the convention in ancient Greek tragedy to hoist gods onto the stage to solve these unsolvable problems. And in that sense the Resurrection is precisely that. It’s a Deus Ex Machina in the true sense of the term, it is humanly speaking utterly unexpected. To the Mayans, the arrival of the Spanish as strange as aliens landing on the earth. Or as Gibson appears to allude, the second coming of Christ.
For Gibson, Revelation doesn’t just happen once but again and again.
The one who compassionately suffered with the victim has now become their oppressor’s judge.