Starring Morris Birdyellowhead, Dalia Hernandez, Rudy Youngblood
Directed by Mel Gibson
By Matt Tate
To watch the Mayan epic Apocalypto without discussing Mel Gibson’s persona is impossible, because much like the director, the film walks a fine line between lunacy and grandeur.
There are moments of gruesome violence mixed with opulent beauty underscored by Gibson’s wayward commentary on our self-destructive civilization.
Working with a free rein after the blockbuster success of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, Gibson lets his creative impulses fly for his re-imagining of the Mayan culture. The result is a miscellany of muddled ideas buoyed by breathtaking cinematography and revelatory acting.
Gibson sets the tale in the early 1500s, just before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. The film opens in the jungle, where Flint Sky (Birdyellowhead) and his son Jaguar Paw (Youngblood) lead a primitive group of Mayans.
However, a fearsome tribe of warriors soon raids this group. The assault is vicious. Jaguar Paw hides his pregnant wife (Hernandez) and son (Carlos Emilio Baez) before being herded into captivity with the surviving members of his tribe.
Jaguar Paw’s arduous journey from his remote jungle village to a stone pyramid in the heart of an expansive city traces the evolution of the Mayan culture. It also provides Gibson the chance to deliver numerous sociopolitical statements. When Jaguar Paw reaches this foreign land, crops are dying, diseases are ravaging the city’s inhabitants, the leaders use fear mongering to subdue concerns . . . stop me when this sounds familiar.
Gibson vigorously spends half the film drawing parallels to our own culture, and then recklessly abandons his narrative in the second half as Jaguar Paw escapes, and his pursuers track him on an exasperating chase.
While a visionary filmmaker, Gibson flounders with his depiction of the Mayans at times. The Mayans had a sophisticated written language and refined mathematical system. Does Gibson really need three shots of pulsating hearts in lieu of a Mayan achievement? The Mayans’ ascent to power was not based solely on their ability to lop off the heads of their enemies.
But, Apocalypto tries to convince otherwise.
Much like Gibson appears in real life, Apocalypto is a mesmerizing omnibus of fractured ideas and meandering narratives. Watching the intermittent marvels of the movie, one wishes Gibson would just cut to the chase and say what he wants to say. But, then again given some of his reprehensible views, maybe that’s not a film we would want to see anyway.