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Got faith? 

Catholic kitsch from Mexico makes one appreciate Mel Gibson's showmanship

click to enlarge Once were warriors: Guadalupe and Apocalypto trade on the Christian and pagan origins of Meso-American culture.
  • Once were warriors: Guadalupe and Apocalypto trade on the Christian and pagan origins of Meso-American culture.

The religious drama Guadalupe opened in U.S. theaters Dec. 8, just one week after its Mexican debut and the same day as Mel Gibson's much-discussed Apocalypto. Both films were pegged to the week of Dec. 12, the feast day for the Virgin of Guadalupe, good timing to draw the attention of Mexican-American audiences.

Both films are historical dramas with at least some aspiration toward the thriller category; both are set in Mexico; and both give main roles to indigenous people who speak on screen, at least in part, in their own languages. (Guadalupe, filmed in Spanish and Nahuatl, is subtitled in the United States for both Spanish and English speakers.) Both films are the work of fervent Catholics: Gibson is a famously conservative, pre-Vatican II convert, while the making of Guadalupe was closely supervised by a Mexican cardinal who heads the Guadalupan Studies Institute, which collects evidence of the 1531 apparition of Mary to an Aztec Indian.

Guadalupe has two storylines, one modern and one set 475 years ago, which are cut together with the subtlety of a Bollywood epic. The modern subplot is a straight allegory about a brother-and-sister team of scientists (read: atheists) raised by their grandmother, who allowed the siblings to believe they were orphans abandoned by unloving parents. This, naturally, throws a wrench into their personal lives. Jose Maria doesn't appreciate the mother figures in his life, and Mercedes is a globe-trotting spinster. They go to Mexico to "investigate" the Virgin of Guadalupe and family values ensue.

Flashbacks to the Nican Mopohua, the 1648 Nahuatl text that is the first record of Guadalupe's apparition, provide a field day for character actors. A giant with an insanely aquiline nose plays the Spanish bishop Juan de Zumarraga, who is initially skeptical of Juan Diego's vision. Indeed, it requires several miracles to get him on board with the Virgin's request to build her a shrine on a Tepeyac hill, where she makes roses bloom in the dead of winter, heals Juan Diego's sick uncle, and burns her image into a tilma, or native tunic.

One of Guadalupe's immediate shortcomings as a suspense movie is that the modern characters are constantly namedropping "scientific" articles, fringy tomes which claim, among other things, that the paints used on the cloth image of the Virgin of Guadalupe are "not of this world," and that outlines of the Holy Family can be identified in the reflections in her eyes. In between such facts come references to the golden mean and numerological symbolism, such as why there are seven points on a piñata (think seven deadly sins). An Arabic character is introduced to hint about the astronomical significance of Mary's celestial vestment and a Jewish character throws out the mystical chestnut of the Three Juans (Juan Diego, his uncle Juan Bernardino, and Bishop Juan de Zumarraga) who bear witness to the miracles. Thus, the three great monotheistic religions appear to agree on the matter.

In Apocalypto, Mel Gibson has a similar fixation with a kind of science-iness, taking surface verisimilitude (such as the tattoos, hair and body art in Apocalypto) to an astounding degree. Gibson also seems to agree with the historical worldview behind Guadalupe in regarding pre-Columbian cultures as, if not inherently violent, then as civilizations where blind elites have spiraled homicidally out of control. Tacitly or not, both films suggest that, no matter what harm they might have done, Conquest and conversion at least put an end to the gruesome violence of a particular pre-Christian lifestyle.

Where the films clearly differ is in their sensibility, and when it comes to religious shock and awe thrillers, the Catholic Church could use more of Gibson's savoir faire. Where Apocalypto doesn't shy away from gore on the open hand, Guadalupe prefers the reaction shot. When Juan Diego shows his radiant tilma to the Bishop, the camera doesn't let viewers participate in the big reveal. Instead, it cuts back and forth between the shaken faces of the witnesses. This is one way to save money on special effects, to be sure, but it also accords with ancient decorum in the matter of how to teach morality through art. However, like the ancients, Gibson understands the lure of showmanship: Deathbeds are just not as much fun to watch as arenas of human blood sport.

What is worth watching in Guadalupe, much like the details of everyday life in Gibson's potboiler, is documentary footage slipped into the modern storyline: Scenes of actual pilgrims on their way to the Basilica, the most visited Marian shrine in the world, a womb-shaped sanctuary where the tilma hangs, and villagers committing feats of daring in the Virgin's name, hanging themselves upside-down from a tall, maypole-like device and letting their bodies spool earthward. That kind of faith is far more contagious than mysticism with footnotes. It's a hobbled faith that needs shoring up by medieval ballyhoo dressed up in the trappings of modern science. Faith is not the stuff promulgated by institutions (or movies perhaps), it is born of the needs and customs of people on the ground. The Jewish character gets it when he explains why he, too, is a Guadalupano: "In Mexico, who isn't?"

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