It occurred to me while watching Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto that if the indefatigable padre ever made a film of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, he’d give us shot after shot of Madame Defarge knitting as tumbrels roll and the guillotine falls: chop, chop, another name for the embroidery, our summary witness to massacre. So what’s the equivalent here, the iconic ur-cliche? Obviously the lopped-off heads skipping down temple steps, which remind you somehow (or at least remind me) of the sinister basketball in Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend bouncing along the subdivision asphalt: double dribble, anyone? … or maybe it’s only a traveling violation. Or the “still-beating hearts” (and what’s with the ritual rubric? is everyone quoting from the same pulp authority?) yanked from the innards of newly dispatched corpses, a bloody figuration that Father Mel’s presumably imbibed through countless boy’s life fictions and potted histories of the Maya (H.G. Wells et al), the Argosy magazine serials of his youth … But that’s how it is, more often than not, with Gibson and the bloodletting: not as connotatively focused as one might hope or expect, meanings ramifying in every which direction. (Like that flying squirrel Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, limbs splayed in agony as he soars above the stationary camera in absurdly extended slo-mo: the product of knotted whips and chains or some tres hip variant of electroglide in red?)

But there’s more to Apocalypto world than Father Mel’s violent obsessions, though I’m not sure he’s fully attuned to whatever it’s all about. Where the movie succeeds mainly, whether advertently or not, is in its exposing the tacit pressures of ordinary social relating, the enforced camaraderie and unspoken conformity that keep this tribal subsistence engine humming at full-bore efficiency, as it should and as it must, the kind of subliminal lubrication you’d find in films of the 30s and 40s–the taken-for-grantedness of things, of kinder, küche, kirche, the infamous social triad (the last spread liberally around the emerald forest floor, no hard locus for the sacred here)–albeit much less frequently today. In fact from the padre’s point of view, these post-Edenic primitives are pretty much the utopian beau ideal: sure their lives are “dull, brutish, short” in the classical Hobbesian sense, but hey, that’s how things oughta be, the best we can ever hope for in our compromised fallen state. So if there’s roughhousing and menace to keep everyone in line–to the extent that initially I thought Jaguar Paw, nominally the hero, was actually villain of the piece, ragging on comrades, threatening every hapless intruder with xenophobic extinction, etc–well, it’s just for everyone’s own good, right? Except how are these prickly tribalists any different from the more heavily armed thugs who want to snuff them out, offer their “still-beating hearts” to implacable, angry gods? No way out of this dilemma, I guess, except for Father Mel it’s not a dilemma at all.