by Dianne Lawrence
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Apocalypto, written by Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia, is a watershed film for director Mel Gibson. He appears to be a lot more complex than any of us imagined. First, a film about crucifying Christ that would seem to appeal to those with an uncomfortable capacity for suffering. Then, executive producing a successful documentary about one of our great contemporary (and Jewish) poets, Leonard Cohen, followed by his famous uncontrolled drunken tirade against Jews. And now this, his best film yet. A lush mythical tale set within the Mayan culture.
The Mayans were one of the most densely populated and sophisticated cultures in the world with a history going back nearly 4,000 years. They had incredible art, monumental architecture and a complex understanding of astronomy and mathematics. But by the 1500s, when our story takes place, their culture was in decline and the Spaniards were about to arrive.
The basic plot is fairly simple, a small friendly village is set upon by fierce warriors. Our hero, Jaguar Paw (played by the sensational newcomer Rudy Youngblood), is able to save his young son (Carlos Emilio Baez) and beautiful pregnant wife, Seven (beautiful talented Dalia Hernandez), by hiding them in a deep crevice. During the battle, before he is subdued, Jaguar Paw has humiliated a particularly sadistic warrior, Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios). As Snake Ink gets ready to gleefully dispatch our hero, the leader, Zero Wolf (the commanding Raoul Trujillo), decides he should live. Snake Ink takes out his revenge by slitting Jaguar’s fathers throat in front of him. His father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), who has already warned him that fear is a sickness and to avoid inviting it in, looks at his son for the last time, reminds him once more and calmly submits to his death.
While the the women and men are brutally dragged back to the big city, the children are left behind to fend for themselves in one of the most heart wrenching scenes I’ve witnessed in a film. The women are to be sold as slaves and the men sacrificed in the hopes that their lives will buy the city folk some much-needed rain. A natural occurrence magically saves Jaguar Paw, who seems to have inherited the mystical abilities of his namesake. He manages to escape and stay one step ahead of the pursuing enemy’s arrows. In the end, he exacts a revenge that leaves the audience duly satisfied.
Pretty standard fare, but Gibson’s impressive ability to weave wonderful acting, mythical moments and strikingly poetic visuals around this plot, like an exotic jungle vine, elevates this typical bad guys/good guys revenge story into an engaging heroes journey.
In one of the most striking scenes, the tribe emerges from their natural world and is slowly confronted with “civilization.” At the edge of the city, they are dragged through slaves, covered in white dust, laboring away in a stunned haze. They continue on into the bazaar, which becomes increasingly complex with a dizzying mix of strange activity and exotic stratus of class. It is an enormously impressive coordination of sights, sounds and strange cultural behavior, and we are easily reminded of Felllini’s influence. Painted blue and surrounded by women, the captured men watch their own women get pulled to the auction block. They are dragged to the pyramids and witness a frenzied crowd cheer as a decapitated head tumbles down the stairs that lead up to the sacrificial altar. We all realize at once what’s in store.
The spectacular work of production designer Tom Sanders, the great camerawork by Dean Semler and gorgeous score by James Horner, along with Gibson’s polished direction and perfect crew of actors, create a compelling and opulent alien world. Like our innocent tribe, we are captured by and pulled into the journey. Some have complained about the brutality, and when I heard about it, I admit to having been reluctant to see the film, but the stark moments are not exploitive. They are an unflinching recreation of the harsh realities of this remarkable time and serve to add another layer to this compelling tale.
One can’t help but feel that everything before this film prepared Mr. Gibson to achieve a new level of story telling and beautifully realized filmmaking. For the first time…I am looking forward to what he will do next.
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