“Apocalypto” a memorable rumble in the jungle
If any other director had made the spellbinding, visceral Mayan epic “Apocalypto,” the film would be championed and unquestionably be discussed in Oscar worthy terms. But mad Mel Gibson’s off-screen antics have unduly clouded many critics’ judgement of his films, and “Apocalypto” is no exception. Gibson has not only crafted the best epic in recent memory but an amazingly detailed, memorably vivid, thrill-a-minute and graphic (but not gratuitous) depiction of a once great civilization in decline.
Gibson’s remarkable vision can be broken down in three acts. Filmed in the rainforest of Mexico, the film introduces us to a small tribe of 15th century villagers, and we witness their hunting routines and familial customs. All of the dialogue is spoken in Yucatec Mayan with English subtitles– a technique that adds to the film’s native quality but also quickly disappears thanks to the expressive countenances and body language of the indigenous cast, all of whom are relative newcomers to film. (Note that the script contains exactly one F-word in the subtitled translation-proving once again a singular f-bomb, strategically employed, is more pungently effective than several hundred being bandied about with reckless impunity.)
A hero emerges, the young Jaguar Paw (the athletic and charismatic Rudy Youngblood), who hopes to follow in the footsteps of his virile and wise father Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead). Eminent doom lurks as the hunters come across another small tribe in the jungle, who with terror in every visage is fleeing the ravaging destruction of its village. It is here that Jaguar Paw learns that fear is an enemy to one chasing his destiny.
The middle section of the movie depicts the attack upon Jaguar Paw’s village by a fierce and considerably pierced and inked Holcane tribe led by ultra-warrior Zero Wolf (an imposing, sneering Raoul Trujillo). While the attack (most of the violence is hand-to-hand) is intimately filmed, giving the action a savage feel, much of the more heinous violence (rape, maiming, etc) is implied rather than depicted.
The most visually stunning and outrageous scenes take place as a group from Jaguar Paw’s village is taken captive and brought back to the advanced city of its captors to be sacrificed to the Sun God. Gibson, with the aid of skilled cinematographer Dean Semler, has created in intricate detail a lost world rivaling that of any film, complete with concrete pyramids, elaborate costumes and jewelry of the Mayan royalty, and the barbarity of a Mesoamerican Caligula.
The film’s final third chronicles Jaguar Paw’s escape from the sacrificial alter and “Apocalpyto” converts into a relentless chase and escape sequence complete with cascading waterfalls, a face eating Jaguar, poisoned darts, and our protagonist’s stratagems to evade capture and rescue his pregnant wife and child whom he had hidden in a natural cistern.
“Apocalypto” is not without its flaws. Gibson’s lens tends to linger in areas that don’t need repeating and the film’s length diminishes the impact of the exhaustive final scenes, which include a fascinating New World revelation.
And the much ballyhooed level of violence? As in his previous films, Gibson’s underdog saga is heartwarmingly brutal, but given the context, it feels warranted. Compared to Tarantino’s splatter fests, the legion of exploitative horror films that are released, and the wince-inducing military carnage in films like “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Apocalypto” can’t be considered shocking by any measure. More shocking would be if, come Oscar time, Gibson’s off-screen foibles overshadow his onscreen prowess.
Rated R for sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images.