Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is a Yucatec-language action adventure set in the waning days of the Maya civilization. After the first few impalements, amputations, rapes, eviscerations and beheadings, I thought Apocalypto might be the most obsessively, graphically violent film I'd ever seen. By the end I felt sure it was the most obsessively, graphically violent film I'd ever seen, but equally sure that Apocalypto is a visionary work with its own wild integrity. And absolutely, positively convinced that seeing it once is enough for one lifetime.
However Mel Gibson may present himself in public these days, he's a singular presence in contemporary American films; no one else is making movies like Apocalypto or "The Passion Of the Christ," let alone paying for them out of personal bank accounts. Yet he's also rooted in the Hollywood tradition of flamboyant obsessive-compulsives—such filmmakers as Griffith, Von Stroheim and De Mille who combined the power of primitivist themes with all the razzle-dazzle technique at their command.
The technique deployed in Apocalypto is elegant, though that shouldn't be surprising, given the superb craftsmanship of The Passion of the Christ. Dean Semler's cinematography, Tom Sanders' production design and James Horner's music illuminate the story of one man and his family trying to survive in the ghastly chaos of a pre-Columbian society that's grown rotten to the core. (The screenplay was written by Gibson and Farhad Safinia. If it suggests that any other civilizations are rotting, that's as the writers intended.) In the department of razzling and dazzling, Apocalypto embraces an assortment of reliable action clichés dating back to the silent cinema--brilliant chases, spectacular leaps and falls, a creepy seeress, women and children in constant jeopardy, waters rising, quicksand gurgling, lives saved by a solar eclipse, cliff-hangers on the edge of sandy cliffs. Due to the absence of ice floes off the Yucatán, there's no Mayan equivalent of Lillian Gish.
The hero, Jaguar Paw, is played by Rudy Youngblood, a Native American artist and musician making his acting debut. In a production that boasts a cast "made up entirely of indigenous peoples from the Americas," Youngblood builds on his indigenousness with a bag of shrewd actor's tricks that date back to early Marlon Brando. The result is impressive -- a protagonist who keeps our disbelief more or less suspended, and that's no easy feat.
At the outset Jaguar Paw, his pregnant wife and their young son are among the peaceful, jovial and poetic residents of a village whose worst plague is a mother-in-law reminiscent of the one played last year by Jane Fonda. When the village is invaded by stone-age body-builders with bad teeth but great costumes, Jaguar Paw is taken prisoner, made a slave and put through all sorts of hell while he tries to make good on a promise to his wife that he will return.
The film takes that promise solemnly. It's a moral fable about the primacy of the family, and other things as well: strong fathers; overcoming fear; standing up to corrupt authority; the need for new beginnings, the sanctity of the land and, again not surprisingly, given the radical fundamentalism of Mel Gibson's religious beliefs, a tacit rejection of the Christianity that arrives by Spanish galleon on the Yucatán shore. Since my Yucatec-language skills are wanting, I can't pass judgment on the quality of the dialogue, or the accuracy of the subtitles, which include the memorable phrase "We must not let this man make feet from us." I can tell you, though, that by the time Jaguar Paw's journey was over, I could not wait to make feet from the theater.