When we first walked out of Gibson's Apocalypto, my thinking was that real question with this film was: "Is it fatalistic or not?"
It seems most people's question was "Why was it so violent?" but I guess those people don't watch very many violent movies. Apocalypto isn't the gratuitous bloodbath everyone paints it as. Yes, people get their hearts cut out and their heads cut off, but the cutting happens for the most part off-screen. If you can't handle the heart-yoinking scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom then this MIGHT be too much for you. Otherwise, it's not that big a deal.
No, as I say, my concern was with the implied fatalism. A quick conversation with Steph was enough to reassure me that yes, the film does indeed posit a fatalistic view of life. The descent of civilization is prophesied, and comes true exactly as described, and there is not a thing anyone can do about it.
That's not in and of itself a bad thing. Well, not quite.
The problem with stories that put forward a fatalistic view (most allegories fall into this trap) is that once you as a viewer have realised that the story takes place in a world where fate holds sway, it becomes hard to engage much with the characters. We CARE most about characters who are doing something to affect the world, and in a fate-driven world, individuals can have no impact; they can only fulfill their role.
Because of course we want to believe that we live in a world where our choices matter, where the pains and trials we undergo have meaning and impact and value. And of course we are terrified that we don't. And so in the end, watching Apocalypto becomes an exercise in watching these poor saps who cannot turn aside from their destiny, and just feeling sorry for them. It sure does suck to be them. Yes sirree.
So how is this different from The Passion, Gibson's brilliant masterpiece? Isn't that fatalistic? Isn't Christ as fated to die on that cross as these Americans are to collapse under their own superstitious dread?
I wondered about this as I was washing the dishes.
Wash wash wash. Wonder wonder wonder.
But once I realised the difference, I understood immediately why The Passion is so moving and why Apocalypto, for all its glory and energy, is so flat.
Christ knows what's happening to him. He chooses his fate. The Christian story isn't a story about the working-out of some pre-ordained fate -- it's about a man choosing compassion and inner strength over fear and weakness. The story is so powerful partly because we're all up there, hanging from the crosses of our own lives and asking, "Why me? Why am I stuck here?"
And the answer it gives is: "Because you know it's the right thing to do. You didn't have to do this. You could have stepped aside. All you had to do was open your temples to the money-lenders, stone those who reminded you of your own failures, and join in driving out those who speak the unwelcome truth. If you would have put aside your conscience and your passion for honesty, all would have been so much easier. But you chose to do the right thing, to suffer for THEIR sins, to allow yourself to take on the burden of THEIR dishonesty and fear, and so you can just shut up and bleed, because you got nobody to blame but yourself. Because you knew it was the right thing to do."
Apocalypto can't even ask the question, let alone answer it. Which is too bad, because it is beautiful and horrible and full of tremendous performances. But it's mute beauty, silenced by its own fatalistic vision.