Director : Mel Gibson
Screenplay : Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Rudy Youngblood (Jaguar Paw), Dalia Hernandez (Seven), Jonathan Brewer (Blunted), Morris Birdyellowhead (Flint Sky), Carlos Emilio Baez (Turtles Run), Ramirez Amilcar (Curl Nose), Israel Contreras (Smoke Frog), Israel Rios (Cocoa Leaf), María Isabel Díaz (Mother in Law), Raoul Trujillo (Zero Wolf), Gerardo Taracena (Middle Eye)
When word first got out that Mel Gibson was taking the millions of profits and industry clout he earned from the runaway success of The Passion of the Christ (2004) and heading deep into the heart of Mexico to film an epic about the Mayan civilization starring unknown actors and filmed entirely in an ancient Mayan dialect, tongues wagged that he had truly lost his mind. Of course, those same tongues had wagged about his decision to use his own money to make a brutally violent depiction of the last hours of Christ’s life in Aramaic and Hebrew. Gibson certainly didn’t help his cause with his drunken, vulgar, anti-Semitic roadside meltdown last summer, but however you feel about the man, it is hard to deny that Apocalypto, which has been the subject of much rumor and speculation during its heavily shrouded production and delayed release, is a remarkable achievement in visceral filmmaking.
What is most remarkable about Apocalypto, though, aside from being a rare Hollywood production that views a foreign culture from within, is how thoroughly and effectively conventional it is. For all the derring-do of making a film about an ancient Mesoamerican culture rarely if ever depicted in Hollywood movies in that civilization’s native tongue, Apocalypto runs right to the heart of what Americans love. It celebrates family, perseverance, honor, and the clear divide between good and evil. Just because the faces are unfamiliar doesn’t make them any less recognizable. Gibson and his coscreenwriter Farhad Safinia have crafted an ode to familial love and survival drenched in gore and exotic locales. It’s part ancient travelogue, part chase film, part capture narrative, and part cautionary tale about the dangers of decadence and national narcissism. Much like Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), Apocalypto celebrates the simple and familial over the powerful, which is viewed as inherently corrupt.
Power in Apocalypto is embodied in the mighty Mayan empire, which is on the brink of collapsing in on itself (the film opens with a pertinent quote by historian Will Duran: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”). It is a full hour into the film before we arrive in the horrorshow heart of the Mayan civilization, which is depicted as a massive sprawl of depraved desperation, with priests proclaiming great things high atop mountainous temples before brutally slaughtering human sacrifices, their hearts torn out and their heads lopped off and sent bouncing down the pyramid’s steps. The film’s most riveting and revolting moment is when a character stumbles upon the dumping ground for all the headless bodies, which Gibson reveals to be a literal landscape of slaughter that looks like it was ripped directly from any religion’s most feverish nightmares of hell.
The film’s central character is Jaguar Paw (immensely intense and photogenic newcomer Rudy Youngblood), who lives in a small village that is raided by Mayan warriors looking for more sacrificial victims. The film’s early passage are dedicated entirely to establishing the peaceful nature of Jaguar Paw’s tribe and its harmony with the jungle in which they live; the intrusion of the Mayans, with their instruments of war, burning torches, and seething sadism is depicted as a literal rape. Jaguar Paw, along with many others, is taken prisoner, while his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and their young son are trapped in a pit from which they cannot escape.
The middle third of the film takes place in the Mayan capital, where Jaguar Paw and the others are taken to be sacrificed. Jaguar Paw manages to escape, leading to an extensive chase back to the ruins of his village so he can rescue his wife and child from the hiding place that threatens to become their tomb. He is pursued by a group of Mayan warriors lead by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena), the latter of whom was responsible for killing Jaguar Paw’s father for no other reason than to inflict suffering on him.
Apocalypto is the third film Gibson has directed that takes place in an ancient culture and focuses heavily on the ugly nature of brutality. Jaguar Paw has much in common with Braveheart’s William Wallace in that he is an inherently peaceful man who is driven to violence out of necessity. The central thrust of Apocalypto is survival, which Jaguar Paw must achieve at all costs because his family’s survival depends on his own. Thus, the chase through the jungle, which includes a nasty run-in with both a jaguar and a poisonous snake, a dangerous plummet down a waterfall, and a struggle through oily quicksand, becomes not just an extended action setpiece, but a paean to what a man will do for his family. Not surprisingly, the theme of vengeance is close to the surface, as well, but credit Gibson for not focusing too heavily on it, lest the film become Mad Max Beyond Ancient Mesoamerica.
Apocalypto was shot by cinematographer Dean Semler, who Gibson first met when he shot The Road Warrior (1981), the film the catapulted Gibson to star status outside of Australia. Semler gives the film a dense, textured look that emphasizes the breadth of nature and the smallness of humankind within it (in this sense, it is one of the most ambitious man-vs.-nature spectacles not directed by Werner Herzog, who is as celebrated for his cinematic insanity as Gibson is criticized for his). Semler and Gibson mix styles, going from elaborate and smooth crane shots to jerky handheld work that puts the viewer right in the middle of the action. This works at times, while at other times it feels forced. Gibson is much better when he’s pulling the mythopoetic out of the violent action, which is underscored by James Horner’s rough-and-tumble musical score. It’s a good summation of the film as a whole, which balances its graphic violence with a sense of mythic transcendence that turns one man’s quest for survival into an elegy for honor in an increasingly corrupted world.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Touchstone Pictures