• Mel Gibson
  • 2006

Mel Gibson angered plenty of people when he released The Passion of The Christ back in 2004. It was expected to be a flop by many as not only was it a brutal piece of cinema on a controversial subject, it also relied on subtitles as it was shot in Aramaic and Hebrew. Yet it grossed millions. Even so, eyebrows were raised once when Gibson announced his next directing project would be a foreign-language epic about the Mayan civilization. But this is not another historical lesson; rather it is a blockbuster action film. Placing emphasis once again on visual imagery and human defiance, the links with the Mayan civilisation are just the basis for a kidnap-escape-chase movie. On those terms, it is excellent popcorn fare.

The film opens on a group of hunters in an unidentified central America forest where Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), together with a group of male hunters from his village, capture a boar. A humorous introduction is only interrupted by a group of people from another village who warn of danger approaching. Believing there to be no impending threat to their peaceful existence, Jaguar Paw and his fellow villagers return to their tranquil settlement only to be attacked that night by assailants unknown to them. In the fighting, Jaguar Paw is able to guide his pregnant wife and child to safety in a cavern only accessible by climbing a vine. However, when he is captured and led off to a Mayan city one suspicious raider cuts the vine leaving them stranded. Will jaguar Paw get the chance to save his family?

The final 45 minutes or so are quite breathtaking as Jaguar Paw escapes from his captives and runs back to his ruined village to save his family.

Filmed in the Yukatek Maya language, you get the impression that Gibson was trying to make another film based on history in the same way as The Passion of The Christ. The initial meeting of Jaguar Paw’s fellow villagers is surprisingly funny and references the beliefs harboured by them, before events take a turn for the worse for the characters. The village raid is savage and leads to a long march for the captives back to a Mayan city where they are to be sacrificed to please the Sun god Kukulkan. In a sequence related to Christ bearing the cross in Gibson’s previous effort, Jaguar Paw is forced to help a dying friend along the way and they witness parts of a civilisation in decline. Much of this is left for the viewer to respond to individually, however he does include a warning from a girl suffering from smallpox that the end is near — hardly a subtle move. The sacrifice ceremony has come under fire for fuelling a stereotype of native Mesoamericans as bloodthirsty savages with few civilized achievements other than architecture. This is definitely one reading that could be made, and Gibson again chooses to depict graphic torture, but whether it is a deliberate move is questionable.

The final 45 minutes or so are quite breathtaking as Jaguar Paw escapes from his captives and runs back to his ruined village to save his family. Pursued by an enraged pack of hunters, Gibson never lets the action pause or become bogged down in hard-to-follow quick cutting. Starring in all those action films has really paid off as the turns towards the end prove well placed and inventive. The closing moments of the film are very ambiguous and may leave a slightly sour taste for many viewers. Gibson seems to want to make a statement about the arrival of the Spanish with their boats on the shores of the Yucatan Peninsula just as they are about to make contact with the Mayans. However, he veils it in secrecy and a final cryptic thought which could be read as the Mayan’s surrendering to the advancement of modern civilisation. This does not detract from the enjoyment of the film, but leaves a negative note to end on which again questions the historical aspirations it once seemed Apocalypto might harbour. A special mention must go to the little-known cast who perform brilliantly across the board. Youngblood should be the biggest winner of them all.

Overall, Apocalypto is closer to a blockbuster action movie than anything weightier and should be watched accordingly. Mel Gibson may want us to think long and hard about why the Myan civilisation fell into decline through the brief glimpses he offers into it and a quote from American philosopher Will Durant that “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” He offers no true exploration of this idea and leaves the visceral impact of his kinetic camerawork together with copious amounts of gore as the film’s focal aspects. While this makes it impressive to some, it will also be off-putting for others. Think before, rather than while, you watch.

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