Pre-Columbian passion

If the murmured exclamations that precede it–a cast of hundreds of amateur actors; set in pre-Columbian Mexico; shot entirely in an obscure Mesoamerican dialect–didn’t tip you off about the scale of director Mel Gibson’s ambitions for his enigmatically named Apocalypto, the opening quote card will.

“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within,” it reads. With this action / message / soaring visual menagerie movie, Gibson tries to make something as awesome as the Mayan temples at Chichen Itza, and, on every level, succeeds.

Indie in its soul, Apocalypto‘s heart pumps pure big-Hollywood action-adventure blood (“No one can outrun their destiny,” is the clumsy PR catchphrase) and the plot is accordingly (though elegantly) spare. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) lives in an idyllic jungle village that’s sacked by Zero Wolf (an iron Raoul Trujillo, costumed in a sleeve of human jawbones) and his band of marauders. Jaguar Paw lowers his wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and tiny son into a dry well during the fracas, but is captured and marched off before he can retrieve them: stuck, their mortal clock is ticking.

Spliced-through with moments of candid humanity (that, along with the Yucatec dialog, make this most exotic world so completely immersive) Apocalypto is, from its first minutes, a hyper-violent movie. Though Gibson makes it surprisingly resonant. Each club smack hits the audience harder than the last. And this is more than subtle restraint and apt timing.

On the long march Jaguar Paw catches the ire of Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), Zero Wolf’s impulsive lackey–sadistic even by local standards. The closer they get to the great Mayan city they’re headed to, the less the individual characters matter.

By the time they glimpse their fate in a gruesome mural–they’re not slaves, they’re human sacrifices–they are not the action: the desperate, crushing Mayan metropolis is. Jaguar Paw is marched through tree-denuded black mudflats, shantytowns teeming with disease and quarries where ghost-like slaves choke back blood as they cut away monumental stones. Then the city itself: fevered crowds lapping at the base of awesome temples, whooping and dancing with nets, hoping to catch the heads of the decapitated sacrifices that come hurdling down as light and bouncy as volleyballs.

If there were enough time it would be possible to spend hours just wandering in this previously unimagined world. Apocalypto moves along, managing to avoid Titanic-esque empty grandiosity by studying individual faces: the lunatic face of an enraptured high priest, the near-alien serenity of the god king. The film reaches its visual climax on the sanguine temple-top altar as Jaguar Paw is prepared to have his beating heart torn out. Tilting back between his dizzying perspective and panoramas, the level of detail that’s presented is a testament to the unique power of film: words can’t do the job.

Fate gives Jaguar Paw a momentary respite from death and he runs with it, through the jungle, hotly pursued by Zero Wolf, Snake Ink and a brutal posse.

The chase is primally paced. The farther Jaguar Paw runs, the more violent the intermittent encounters with his hunters become. If Apocalypto were an average action flick, it would here have to juice its violence with more gore or bigger stunts to keep the awe in rapidly desensitizing audiences.

But Gibson’s carefully layered backdrop of a society pulsing with violence–casual, sacred and extra-depraved–lends consistency and credibility to Jaguar Paw’s fight. The brutal cuts and jabs feel perfectly of a piece with the film’s universe, not fantastic outgrowths of it that need rationalizing. (A similar that’s-how-it-really-was design infuses the violence in Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ.) Gibson further guards the believability of his violence by keeping elaborate fight choreography and CGI magic to a minimum.

Thus freed from hyperbole, he focuses on the mundane visual details of violence–and how. The blood that spurts from the head of one of Jaguar Paw’s clocked enemies would hardly fill a tablespoon. But that’s how it really looks: and this is more stunning than a dozen chainsaw massacres.

The particular half-hearted character arc that propels Jaguar Paw through the jungle is stock stuff: something about overcoming fear. The film really ends on its message, and sticks the landing perfectly. That (unsentimental) message couldn’t be clearer: Mayan civilization is declining because of its brutality.

As Apocalypto is far too big for just one inference, accepting this assessment opens the door to a plethora of other equally compelling readings. Gibson sees parallels between the Maya’s deforestation and environmental degradation today and has compared the scaremongering temple priest to the Bush administration. Pacifist, pro-life and anti-fundamentalist points could plausibly be in there too.

Mel Gibson is on an Eastwoodian journey from Lethal Weapon frivolity to real artistic depth. Apocalypto is a milestone. So good, perhaps, that the murmuring over his next film should start before this one leaves theaters.

Louis Wittig is a media writer in New York. He blogs at wittigreaction.blogspot.com.

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