Arriving without all the carefully orchestrated controversy and the commitment of evangelical Christians that inflated the earnings of The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's new movie, Apocalypto, nevertheless has attracted wide publicity and big profits. Following The Passion and the earlier Braveheart, the picture suggests that Gibson as director prefers a certain pattern and subject, the dramatic exploration of a significant historical moment accompanied by graphic and bloody violence. While lacking the cultural connections of Scottish history and the New Testament, the new film once again exhibits the director's fascination with the extremes of savagery and suffering.
The movie opens in the forests of Central America several hundred years ago, just before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, showing some of the life of a small Mayan village. A hunting party kills a tapir and shares the internal organs, persuading one of their number, the butt of everyone's jokes, to eat the animal's raw testicles, no delicacy. In the midst of their fun, they meet a group of refugees fleeing a fierce band of attackers, an ominous encounter that leads to their own later victimization by the same enemies and the destruction of their peaceful existence.
The warriors who attack the village slaughter, pillage, and rape, burning down the huts and taking captives on a terrible journey to their city. In order to placate their god, the sun, and rescue the land from drought and plague, in the great tradition of myth they sacrifice innumerable victims, the purpose of their raid. The high priest arranges the captives on an altar, utters a smug sermon, then cuts out their hearts with his stone knife and decapitates them, rolling the heads from his lofty tower as thousands of inhabitants dance and cheer.
Through a fluke, the protagonist of Apocalypto, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), escapes the execution and, though wounded by a spear and an arrow, runs away, hoping to rejoin the wife and son whom he hid in a cave. From that point, the film shifts its focus from Mayan society in village and city to the long, arduous chase through the jungle, as Jaguar Paw tries to elude a group of pursuers led by the fierce warrior who organized the initial attack. It becomes a pursuit/survival movie, which except for the Mayan language and the subtitles, differs very little from, say, The Naked Prey or The Most Dangerous Game.
The seemingly endless chase, frequently interrupted by shots of Jaguar Paw's pregnant wife and little boy trying to climb out of their hiding place, exhibits some flashy and exciting camera work and a great many dramatic locations. A number of overhead shots show the fleeing victim sprinting through the thick greenery of the forest, while a dozen men follow on his heels; frequent hand-held sequences suggest the frenzy and confusion of the desperate man. Leaking blood, weaponless, exhausted, Jaguar Paw runs through a huge ditch full of a thousand decapitated bodies, fords a swift river, jumps over a waterfall, sinks in a quagmire, now and then striking back at his relentless pursuers.
Although the director presumably intends his film as an examination of Mayan civilization, the simple chase plot and the terrible violence overwhelm almost all of the allegedly historically and anthropologically important material. Aside from the scenes of the truncated pyramids and temples of the city, the movie shows almost nothing of the high development of the native American civilization. The Mayans employed a written language and a system of mathematics, built great structures, many of which still stand, created significant art, and constructed accurate calendars; Gibson, however, mostly shows them as a nation of ferocious savages, brutally enslaving and slaughtering their own people by the thousands.
Apocalypto further reveals a pervasive and wholly repellent mixture of sentimentality and cruelty. The countless stabbings, clubbings, eviscerations, beheadings, the extended suffering of Jaguar Paw, combine oddly with the sappy central emotional relationship of the couple, with its overtones of condescending bathos and self-conscious naiveté. The Gibson formula mixes heavy doses of sadomasochism, gallons of blood, and a false and weepy optimism, all of which ultimately make little sense in the movie's allegedly hopeful conclusion: Mayan civilization deserves a great deal more.
Apocalypto(R), directed by Mel Gibson, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford Cinemas, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.