Mel Gibson, genius or fool:
This is the question that spurred this viewer to examine "Apocalypto." The film is Gibson's first directorial effort since "The Passion of the Christ" and first project since his notorious run-in with the LAPD.
"Apocalypto" is the product of a fervent Christian (and son of an outspoken Holocaust denier) flush with cash from a controversial religious epic and bent on exploring pre-conquest Yucatan culture. The result is a violent, sprawling epic that nails your attention to the screen for 139 minutes. Is it good? Very.
Even if you step into the theater cursing Gibson's personal nastiness, you'll still grant him begrudging respect by the end of the film. Say what you will about the man, he paints in broad strokes. It takes nerve to film in the Yucatec language with a cast of unknowns and portray the Mayan empire at its zenith of blood thirst, complete with graphic human sacrifice. Much has been made of the film's violence content, but it's less gratuitous than one would be led to believe, and it's contextually appropriate to the brutality of the period. What's much more lasting in the viewer's mind is the film's visual sweep, ranging from damp verdant forests to teeming Mayan cities.
Gibson wrote the script with Farhad Safinia, setting the action in the Yucatan Peninsula on the cusp of the Spanish conquest. Flint Sky (Morris Bird), his son Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), and a host of other loincloth-clad hunters inhabit a jungle world of fresh game, tattooed skin, and thatched-roof villages. When a raiding party led by the fearsome Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) ravages the village, Jaguar Paw is able to hide his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and toddler son Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez) in a stone pit before being carried away to the Mayan city for human sacrifice. He escapes bondage and begins a fugitive quest to save his wife and children before Zero Wolf and his hunting party recapture him.
The scenes where the captives are dragged into the Mayan city are simply amazing, with enough authentic costumes, make-up, architecture, and artifacts to blow National Geographic away. Through the captives' eyes we view the environmental degradation, disease, and crop failure that serve as a prelude to the civilization's collapse. We also glimpse the fanaticism of the priestly caste and the mindless obedience of the masses as beating hearts and severed heads are offered to the gods. After Jaguar Paw escapes, the film shifts to an extended chase scene as the wounded Jaguar Paw eludes his captors with a mix of adrenaline, speed, and blind luck. As Jaguar Paw returns to his native forest, he regains the advantage and the film turns into a game of cat and mouse as Jaguar Paw uses hornets, toad venom, and booby traps to thwart his enemies and rescue his wife and child before a tropical downpour floods their stone prison.
Without seeing the film one might suspect Gibson would portray the Mayans as benighted heathen savages, yet in the film he imbues Jaguar Paw and his peers with dignity and a poetic grace. While the pre-release buzz in the Hollywood media predicted "Apocalypto" would be a fiasco comparable to "Heavens Gate," the final result is an admirable reach towards great filmmaking. While you may not care for the mind behind the camera, it's difficult to deny the strength and grace of Gibson's cinematic vision in "Apocalypto."