There are a plethora of subtexts in Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” that come scurrying off the screen, but the most commanding of them is also the most subtle: the presence of a calm acceptance encasing the barbaric catastrophes of its characters. Movies often paint portraits of primitive cultures with certain detachment as a way of dealing with their tragedies, but here is a movie that skillfully masks its displacement with an air of alarming cognizance, as if to suggest the material is being viewed from human eyes rather than movie cameras. There is never a sense that what we are seeing is merely staged for an effect of shallow entertainment or even mere education, either. Gibson’s famous “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ” embellish on these feelings, but here the concept arrives at the absolute center of its psychology, and doesn’t look back for any relief. Like a survivor of inconsolable suffering, the movie endures its findings even as they grow darker and more gratuitous. And after two long hours of simple people being victimized, humiliated and tortured beyond comprehension, we are left with a hard reality that points, alas, to a universal pattern amongst all civilization: no force between men is greater than violence, and those that endure do so because they reject fear in the face of immense pain.
Gibson’s inspiration to make a movie about such an unattractive subject is questionable considering his unrelenting drive in faith-based filmmaking, but results speak louder than intentions. “Apocalypto” isn’t simply an effective movie, but an immensely powerful one: a benchmark and a foresight seemingly all rolled into one. We are used to these audacious impulses from those on the outside of the Hollywood machine (like Werner Herzog), but here is a man whose career as both an actor and a filmmaker found prestige through that process, adding irony to this outcome. At the core of the movie is a value system that blocks out all conscious traces of modern social awareness for the sake of mastering a mood of uncompromising perspective. Few cinematic experiences leave us so paralyzed in that conviction.
16th century Mayan civilization is referenced often but seldom studied in first world nations, which opens a great opportunity for “Apocalypto” to run with: it is unlikely that any of the material will be familiar to its primary audience. The movie takes place at a critical juncture between eras, in those gloomy days when mysterious ships of white men first appeared on the distant horizon, destined to make landfall on South American shores. At the heart of this reality is a peaceful settlement of villagers caught in an existence that robs them of knowledge the outside world, which presents another immediate concern: in the era of religious persecution that ran rampant, their isolation leaves them vulnerable to the attacks of vicious neighbors. This reality is foreshadowed by the village’s elder Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), who in early scenes spies a travelling troupe of broken-spirited refugees limping through the forest towards destinations unknown. “Fear is a sickness,” he tells his son, the strong but excessively inquisitive Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). “It will crawl into the soul of anyone who engages it. It has tainted your peace already. Strike it from your heart. Do not bring it into our village.”
That night he and the rest of his villagers return home from a hunt, and engage in traditional routines: they feast, laugh, watch children play, comfort wives, and find humor in playing practical jokes on the village’s resident goofball Blunted (Jonathan Brewer), who in early scenes is offered a boar’s testicles after being told they would cure his infertility. Jaguar Paw, still unnerved by the caravan of survivors passing through the forest earlier in the day, returns to his hut and embraces his family: Seven (Dalia Hernandez), a heavily pregnant wife, and Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez), the young son who is eager to be blessed with a sibling. Village festivities wind down and he drifts into a slumber that leads into a horrific nightmare, which is shown in provocative detail: Jaguar stands at the opening of a clearing and observes one of those refugees from earlier in the day, his chest torn open and his still-beating heart held in one palm as if being offered in sacrifice. The figure pants dramatically with short breaths through clenched teeth, and only one word escapes his lips: “Run.” The following morning, the village is attacked by an organized army of Mayans, who rape the women, abandon the children, set fire to various huts, chain up many of the men, and viciously murder any that put up resistance. Jaguar is able to hide his wife and child from the captors before they too fall victim to the pillaging, but his endeavors land him in the hands of the enemy, and on a long exhausting road to an uncertain fate somewhere deeper in the forest.
And through that passage emerges the core motive of “Apocalypto,” which descends deeper and deeper by the minute into a world of hopeless and uncompromising visions, all for a purpose that penetrates our defenses like hatchets through a membrane. In tradition with the Gibson approach of filmmaking, none of the material is romanticized; rather, it is directed with a sense of style that roots its production values in the realities of the victims. Many of them are sympathetic without even saying a word – not necessarily because of their tragic situations, but because of the inconsolable looks in their eyes, which suggest that their predicaments are not so much shocking as they are, alas, simply inevitable in their way of life. Werner Herzog made many great films about this kind of chaos (including the masterful “Aguirre, The Wrath of God”), but while his technique demanded certain visual restraint, Gibson’s comes from a place of gratuity that seems almost essential in this premise. Some will find incredible discomfort in many of these scenes – including the brilliant temple sequence in which the depravity of this culture is revealed in shocking splendor – but here they have a context that was noticeably absent in “The Passion of the Christ.” These are not atrocities paraded around for mere shock value, but for psychological resonance.
The Jaguar Paw character stands at the center of all this chaos more based on how the cards fall as opposed to being part of a strategic narrative choice, but his presence becomes a glimmer of light that keeps viewers from succumbing to overwhelming nihilism. The eyes and voice are calm and piercing, like the best traits of respected movie heroes. Decisions made in the heat of a moment are done so with honor and conviction, and his wisdom of the forest becomes a critical tool in later scenes when the Mayans attempt to use him as target practice and inadvertently allow him to escape back into the wild. Those in dire circumstances (inside the movies and out) often succumb to critical blunders made impulsively because they don’t take a moment to consider their consequences, but Jaguar Paw is quick-witted and determined, and he wins us over as his perilous journey progresses. The villainous entity of the Mayans is personified by a ruthless figure named Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena), who terrorizes captives from beginning to end until no spirit is left in them; he functions as not only as a quintessential contrast to Jaguar, but also as a conduit for all the barbaric implications of his time and reality.
Films made within the untamed wilds are notoriously problematic productions, and Gibson’s was no different. Shot on location in Mexico during the height of the country’s rainy season, nearby villages were displaced by flooding and digital equipment was magnanimously monitored in order to keep pace with hazardous climate situations, including obscene temperatures. The common bond in this approach, of course, is that extreme conditions often bring a heightened sense of tension out in what we seen on the screen, and when you couple that with the notion that many of those cast in key roles here are actual natives rather than established actors, “Apocalypto” achieves an effect that goes beyond the expectation of its medium. That is always a rarity in the movies, but even more remarkable given the desensitized era it was made in. Sometimes basic chills are achieved even in simple shots, like one in which the troupe of captors and their victims wander into the path of a sickly child, and are taken aback when she prophesizes their doom at the hands of one already among them. There are no overwhelming soundtrack cues or flashy camera angles – just a small and steady voice, succinct statements, and a face barely hiding back an indication of something more ferocious than all of them.
In the final frames, Jaguar’s treacherous experience finally resolves to a certain freedom for he and his family, and they wander off into the woods to find a new beginning. But what beginnings exist for a civilization on the brink of inner turmoil? And on the eve of foreign arrivals that will cause tremendous upheaval in a primitive way of life, what worth remains in preserving the traditions of this culture? There are variations of answers weaving through the material – some of them profound, others suspect, and a few very depressing. But all of them arrive out of an impeccable sense of mood and conflict that enhances the perspective, and gives it undeniable strength over us. “Apocalypto” is the kind of movie that struggles with visceral and psychological extremes, but somehow finds the right balance.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Thriller/Action (US); 2006; Rated R for sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images; Running Time: 139 Minutes
Rudy Youngblood: Jaguar Paw
Dalia Hernández: Seven
Jonathan Brewer: Blunted
Morris Birdyellowhead: Flint Sky
Carlos Emilio Báez: Turtles Run
Amilcar Ramírez: Curl Nose
Gerardo Taracena: Middle Eye
Produced by Vicki Christianson, Bruce Davey, Ned Dowd, Mel Gibson, Sergio Miranda and Farhad Safinia; Directed by Mel Gibson; Written by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia