March 31st 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Red Star over East Timor

EDITORIAL: Melbourne Cup field in Timor's Presidential election

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Time running out for John Howard?

FINANCE: Concerns over US company behind Qantas takeover

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Australia's foreign debt - myth and reality

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Brian Burke's shadow government

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why must the show go on? / Another wake for absent friends / Reluctance to condemn Mugabe / Musical chairs / More heat than light


DRUG POLICY: Sweden's success in combating drug use

UNITED NATIONS: Dilemma for pro-abortion feminists

OPINION: The narcotic of narcissism

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Mothers in the military

CINEMA: Where Hollywood fears to tread - Mel Gibson's 'Apocalypto'

THE ARGUS: Life & Death of a Newspaper

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Where Hollywood fears to tread - Mel Gibson's 'Apocalypto'

by Len Phillips

News Weekly, March 31, 2007
Len Phillips reviews Mel Gibson's controversial latest film, Apocalypto.

There really must be a conspiracy within Hollywood to give Mel Gibson less than his due. Apocalypto, whatever its possible flaws and despite its undeniably violent contents, is a film worth seeing - arguably the best of the year.

Not that you would necessarily guess that, however. The film has vanished from the mainstream cinemas - not that it lasted there for long.

But you never know whether it might show up again somewhere. It does, for example, seem to be doing the rounds of the alternative cinemas, so it seems to have an audience of sorts.

The story is this. We open in a tropical rain-forest in the middle of pre-European Mexico. A hunting-party is in the midst of some form of teasing in which one of their company is at the receiving end of much not-entirely-good-natured hilarity when they are suddenly come upon by another group of forest-dwellers.


Tension fills the square as these newcomers simply seek a right of passage through the others' territory. The intruders are clearly stricken with deadly fear and are running from whatever has caused such terror in their lives. Our hunting party, wary and on guard, lets them through before heading back to their own village.

The village is a typically idyllic scene from life before the corruption of civilisation. Everyone is living in proximity to nature. All the children are loved, healthy and well fed. Husbands and wives live in apparent monogamous harmony. All is well with the world but for the minor cognitive disturbance one of two of them retain because of the earlier encounter in the forest.

The villagers then settle down to sleep oblivious to the raiding party that suddenly surrounds them. In a wild scene of attack and murder, some other tribal group falls upon them and, after a desperate fight, the entire village is either dead or captured. The captives are then led away to meet an unknown destiny.

The scene felt very much a universal in the history of the human race. And I don't mean the early history either. It just looked like a story about the fate that can befall any smaller group unable to fend for itself in a very wide world of lupine horrors.

The scene may have been set in a primitive Mayan village in the early 16th century, but with slight changes here or there it could have been Genghis Khan falling upon a village in the steppes of Asia, or Nazis descending upon a Russian town in 1942, or Hutus and Tutsis not so long ago, or present day Darfur.

The absence of defence is an invitation to attack by enemies one may not even know one has. The misery depicted in the film looked authentic, as was the total indifference of those who had inflicted that misery on their victims.

But what caught my interest in seeing this film was the victims' ultimate destination - an urbanised centre, where it became apparent that the only point of having brought these captives along was to sacrifice them to their gods.

I am no anthropologist, but I have read that some parts of Gibson's presentation are not fully in keeping with what is known about Mayan culture and civilisation.

However, one undeniable aspect of Mayan culture is strikingly - and accurately - depicted in the film. Sacrificial victims are taken to the top of a pyramid, laid across an altar, their chests opened with an obsidian knife and the beating heart taken from their chest. Each body is then decapitated and rolled down the pyramid steps to the crowd of watchers below.


Since by then we have become to some extent involved with the lives of these captives, it is not just that we see humans being slaughtered for no good purpose, but we are seeing the deaths of people whom we have, to some extent, come to care about.

The general indifference to the deaths among the urbanised population, on the other hand, strike a sombre but realistic note. These are not single deaths of individuals dying one by one. These are mass deaths - individual though each may have been to the persons forced to die - but of no concern to those who have taken their lives.

The remainder of the movie then becomes a Spielberg-like tale, as good as anything Spielberg himself has ever done.

In the very last frames of the film, however, there is one final change of pace. We find a group of our Mayans observing the landing of the first Spanish Conquistadors on the Mexican coast.

With a galleon standing at anchor behind, a longboat brings soldiers and a priest, the priest calmly standing holding a cross as the boat slowly advances towards the shore.

I have discussed this film with not a few who have seen it and each of them, so used to Hollywood presentations of religious figures as villains, could not appreciate that we have in Mel Gibson a film director who refuses to bow to the typical Hollywood anti-religious line.

The predictable Hollywood message to the conquered Mayans would be: "Boy, you think you had problems before, but now look what's coming!"

How bizarre, really, to take such a message when the Church represented an alternative to being taken from your village, having your entire family murdered before your eyes and then driven from your home to a place where your heart would be ripped from your body.

We, in our own culture, are trapped by our historical ignorance. We unquestioningly swallow the concept of the Noble Savage and cannot grasp the point of Gibson's film that no one, given a choice, would choose to live like a pre-Christian Mayan.

Civilisation as we know it may have its drawbacks, but for all our faults, we are as good as it gets.

- film reviewed by Len Phillips.

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