One thing you can say with a fair degree of certainty about Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” is that it’s unlike any other movie you’ll encounter this holiday season–or most any other season of any year. On the one hand it’s a sort of folly, a bizarre re-imagining of a long-dead culture that can be interpreted as an oblique commentary on what Gibson undoubtedly sees as a central problem of modern American society (though one that can be interpreted differently by different viewers). Like “The Passion of the Christ,” the dialogue is spoken in a language (Yucatec Maya) that it’s reasonable to suppose most viewers won’t be familiar with–hence the need for subtitles. And many are likely to find it gruesomely violent and decidedly uncomfortable to watch, without the justification some of them found for the explicit bloodletting of “The Passion.”
And yet despite its oddity “Apocalypto” has a visionary quality that makes it weirdly beautiful and endlessly fascinating. And Gibson has invested it with such visceral energy that despite being a story about death (of individuals, communities and whole societies), it pulses with cinematic life. It may be a folly, but it’s one whose ambition you have to respect and whose execution is idiosyncratic in a good sense.
The film opens with a wild boar hunt conducted by the men of a jungle village, among whom the lithe and virile Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) stands out. The hunt concludes with a macho joke that’s likely to gross out a goodly portion of the audience right off, but more importantly it’s interrupted by a group of bedraggled survivors from a nearby settlement fleeing from unnamed ravagers, who shortly go on their way. Returning to their home with meat for the community, the men settle down for the night (in a sequence of unabashed sensuality) until the entire village is stealthily attacked by those invaders–a vicious band led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), who has his warriors kill the women and enslave the men, leaving the children behind. But before being taken himself, Jaguar Paw is able to hide his own wife (Dalia Hernandez) and son (Carlos Emilio Baez) in a deep cavern, promising to return.
The next act has Zero Wolf and his sinister lieutenant Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios) lead their captives back to the Mayan capital, where they are to be publicly sacrificed and decapitated on the great pyramid to appease the gods, whose displeasure has clearly been shown by a prolonged drought and epidemic. Along the way, however, an infected little girl they encounter issues a dark prophecy about the coming of disaster for the civilization. This central portion of the film, with its grotesque imagery and palpable sense of savagery, is its most unsettling.
The final act begins when Jaguar Paw is abruptly saved from execution by a quirk of nature and, after being forced to run a ghastly gauntlet (comparable to the one in “Army of Shadows,” for those of you who saw that film about the French resistance), runs furiously back to his village to save his family (threatened with drowning from a pouring rain), pursued all the way by Zero Wolf and his minions. This extended chase is packed with energy and, it must be said, bloody demises. A concluding surprise ends the race–and portends the disappearance of the Mayans.
There will be disagreement as to what all of this is intended by mean; an opening title from Will Durant (a name not much heard nowadays) speaks of a civilization decaying from within before it falls to outside forces, but obviously it could apply to different scenarios. Many will see “Apocalypto,” as Gibson has himself suggested, as a critique of any society that relies on fear to keep itself united–a message with contemporary political overtones. But in view of Gibson’s religious beliefs, it could just as easily–and perhaps more plausibly–be taken as a critique of the sort of “culture of death” that the Mayans, as here depicted, represent (and many believe today’s western civilization to represent, too).
But setting aside such deeper concerns, what Gibson’s picture is certainly about is pulsating excitement, especially in the two great set-pieces–the beginning hunt and the concluding chase–and the attempt to recreate, or more properly to creatively imagine, a long-vanished and mysterious society. It succeeds brilliantly in the first instance, thanks to Gibson’s taut direction, the athletic prowess of the actors, the almost tactile cinematography of Dean Semler, and John Wright’s crisp editing. And in the second it actually manages to suggest a decaying, utterly foreign culture, courtesy of a superb design and production team including Tom Sanders, Theresa Wachter, Carlos Benassini, Erick Monroy, Jay Aroesty and Mayes C. Rubeo. The cast respond with committed turns across the board, with Youngblood and Trujillo standing out as the chief adversaries, and James Horner contributes a moody, evocative score.
There isn’t a great deal of humor in “Apocalypto,” apart from the moment when, walking back to the Mayan capital with his prisoners, Zero Wolf is nearly killed by a tree felled for lumber and shouts, “I’m walking here!,” inevitably recalling the famous words if Ratso Rizzo. But it’s a film of such astonishing vibrancy, stunning imagination and sheer bravado that even if you need to avert your eyes from the screen from time to time, you’ll know you’ve experienced something unlike virtually every other film you’ll ever see.