One of the great philosophical debates through the ages is whether a person can and should be separated from their art.
Can you watch the greatness of “Annie Hall” and forget Woody Allen’s marriage to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi? Can you watch the brilliance of “Chinatown” and ignore the fact that Roman Polanski was a pedophile? Can you watch “Apocalypto” and not think of Mel Gibson anti-semantic statements? Or must we ignore the body of work of the flawed, even the terribly so, no matter how brilliant their work might be?
Gibson’s “Apocalypto” is not a work of brilliance, it has numerous shortcomings, but it is still a film of merit if only for depicting a subject matter rarely seen on film: the Mayan civilization.
You have to give Gibson credit for being different, after all, this is his second film in a row following “The Passion of the Christ” to have dialogue in a dead language. Given most of America’s aversion to subtitles, it is fairly remarkable that both films became big money makers.
Much has been written about the supposedly sensationalistic, gratuitous and sadistic violence of “Apocalypto.” Indeed the film is violent and gory, but the graphic nature of the film is at least based in reality, which can’t be said for the truly gratuitous violence of horror movies like “Saw” or “Hostel.”
The Mayans were a violent people that performed human sacrifices and Gibson shows that. You could say this is in poor taste and judgment, but they aren’t being shown without purpose.
The sacrifices are presented as a means for those in power to manipulate and keep the masses in check. In that light, these sequences can be viewed as social commentary.
“Apocalypto” is advertised as a film about the fall of the Mayan civilization, but this isn’t a film of epic battles. Gibson’s message is simple; all civilizations rot from the inside. Just so you don’t miss it he puts it on a title card before the beginning of the film.
A large portion of the film centers on Mayan warriors pillaging hunter villages to take potential human sacrifices, but before the violence breaks out Gibson tries to show the daily life of the Mayan hunters. It is a feeble attempt to show that despite being more primitive that they really weren’t that different from us.
We see the Mayan equivalent of “Fear Factor” when a group of hunters convinces one of their own to eat a boar’s penis. Later the same hunter becomes the brunt of a “Jackass”-like prank once again involving a penis. This same hunter even has a nagging mother-in-law who is tried of waiting for her grandchild.
At this point you’re thinking, “Mel, you make a film about the Mayan civilization and this is what you come up with?” Luckily, the eye-rollingly awful moments are mostly contained in the first third of the film. Although, be forewarned, there is a laughably bad birth scene towards the end of the film.
The film picks up a bit when a warrior attack occurs and the survivors are marched to a sacrificial temple. The film focuses on Jaguar Paw (the dynamic Rudy Youngblood), who hides his pregnant wife and child in a pit they can’t escape before being taken away. Jaguar Paw and his fellow tribesmen are dragged and tormented through the jungle until they reach their grim destination.
Gibson’s recreation of the Mayan temples and city is amazing to behold and other details such as dress and piercings feel authentic. Even so, up to this point the film is lacking any real dramatic thrust. There’s an odd fascination to the events unfolding, especially the human sacrifices, if you have the stomach for them, but it is interesting only for the novelty that this is something different.
The film truly comes a life when Jaguar Paw makes his escape and runs back to his family while being pursued by his captors. The final third of the film is this pursuit and it is exciting, visceral filmmaking as Jaguar Paw uses his surrounding to thwart his enemies.
This is familiar territory, but it is done so well, that for the first time in the film you are truly involved in the proceeding. This is the sort of filmmaking Gibson is best at and is on par with the similarly themed chase at the end of Michael Mann’s “Last of the Mohicans.”
While the film raises issues about the collapse of societies and corruption of the powerful, the film’s core theme is of the importance of family.
Gibson, as both a director and an actor, seems drawn to stories where a man will do anything for his family. From “Mad Max” on through to “Braveheart,” “Ransom” and “The Patriot” it is a theme that keeps cropping up. So, it isn’t surprising that this is the dramatic drive he chose for “Apocalypto.”
“Apocalypto” isn’t a great film, but it is a good one. Flawed for sure, but daring in its subject matter. And that final chase alone is worth seeing.