Mar 10, 2007

Movie Review: "Apocalypto"

Directed by Mel Gibson; starring Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez

Let me say at the start that, never having been a great Mel Gibson admirer, though liking a number of his movies, I think Apolcalypto is a remarkable achievement.

He directed the film and co-scripted it with Farhad Safinia, an Iranian-born, British-educated, first-time screenwriter, and it is performed by a cast of Native American and Mexican dancers, performance artists, singers, musicians, actors, circus performers and non-professionals (in one case, an 80-year-old Mayan-speaking village storyteller from the Yucatan).It was shot on difficult jungle locations and the photography by Gibson's fellow Australian Dean Semler is as fine as that which won him an Oscar for Dances with Wolves. Except for a couple of slightly over-extended sequences, the film grips from first to last. But before getting into the movie, a few words about how Gibson reached this point in his career.

On and off screen, he has often seemed a driven man at the end of his tether. He became a major star playing jocular, near-psychopathic action heroes in an Australian trilogy (the Mad Max movies) and an American quartet (the Lethal Weapon pictures), was a suitably neurotic Hamlet under Zeffirelli's direction and played a paranoid nutter in Conspiracy Theory. Running through his work is a vein of sadomasochism that gets broader as the films become increasingly personal. With it comes a loathing for oppressive rulers, usually identified as overly refined, cruelly civilised, callously imperialistic, as opposed to the simple, organic lives of the films' heroes (heroines do not figure significantly) who are close to nature, though no strangers to violence.

In his first really significant film, Gallipoli (1981), he played a young Australian athlete running towards his death in the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign of 1915-16. While there's some conventional Pommie-bashing, this was a patriotic saga directed by the romantic Peter Weir, and Gibson had yet to get the bit between his teeth. Were he to make Gallipoli now, the Brits would be presented (with some justice) as crass incompetents sending expendable colonials to be slaughtered.

He was to come into his own as an auteur with the second movie he directed, Braveheart (1995), set in the early 14th century and pitting the Scottish leader William Wallace against the effete, totalitarian English and concluding with the martyr-hero undergoing torture and an agonising death. This was followed by The Patriot (2000), a movie directed by the German Roland Emmerich but very much a Gibson project, in which he played an 18th-century American farmer aroused from neutrality to confront the relentlessly brutal, over-regimented British army in the War of Independence.

A fervent Catholic, he next moved back to the 1st century AD, bringing an unparalleled brutality to the scourging and crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ (2004) and presenting the Romans as sadistic imperialists. Shooting the film in Aramaic and Latin seemed foolhardy, as did Gibson's decision to put up most of the considerable budget himself. Surprisingly, the gamble paid off and he's now moved on to an even riskier venture with Apocalypto. It shares themes and a bold visual style with the earlier films, but is shot in a language - Mayan - that no moviegoer will understand. And the pretty obscure setting is 16th-century Central America on the very eve of the Spanish Conquistadors' arrival to raze a culture to the ground and superimpose their own on its ruins.

This carefully patterned film buries keys throughout its first half that will unlock narrative doors in the second, and works in a circular fashion through a series of parallel images. There are essentially six chapters. We first see a tribe hunting, killing and cutting up a large tapir in a dense jungle. They work together in a happy, jocular manner but their idyll is disrupted by the remnants of another tribe passing through their land to seek a new life deeper in the jungle after being dispossessed. We next see their village, a contented community where the principal character, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), lives with his pregnant wife and their little son. His father, the tribal elder, tells him of the need to confront and overcome fear. From the village storyteller he discovers the traditional symbolism surrounding his name.

As the innocent community sleeps, savage enemies attack the village. They kill most of the women and children and take the men in chains on an arduous journey across mountains and a fast-flowing river to be used as sacrificial slaves in the grand Mayan city. This supposed civilisation beheads its victims and throws them down the precipitous steps of pyramids to appease bloodthirsty gods. The priests work for arbitrary rulers with pampered wives and obese children. But during a sudden halt in the proceedings, the temporarily reprieved human sacrifices are given the chance to regain their liberty. If they can escape the spears and arrows raining down on them as they run across a sandy arena to the shelter of a cornfield, they're free. Jaguar Paw makes it, badly wounded. He has, however, angered the implacable leader of the Mayan's Myrmidons, and he's pursued whence he came. He's running not just to save his life but to rescue his wife and child hiding in a pit.

A magnificent chase ensues, a vivid, violent, painful journey that occupies about a third of the movie and belongs in a cinematic tradition of such things. One thinks of Ernest Schoedsack's The Most Dangerous Game (at least thrice remade), where sadistic aristocrat Leslie Banks hunts human victims lured to his island in the Malayan archipelago; Cornel Wilde in The Naked Prey, given the chance to run for his life by his native captors in early-19th-century Africa; Rod Steiger given a similar opportunity to escape from a tribe of hostile Sioux in Run of the Arrow; and, more briefly, the Nazis playing nasty games with French resistants facing a firing squad in The Army in the Shadows. But this one is not just a bid for survival. It's at once a visceral, moral and spiritual experience in which Jaguar Paw earns the name his tribe have bestowed on him. It concludes with a coda that combines the chilling and the beautiful, the tragic and the hopeful and which, without being either forced or spelled out, has a deep meaning for our own times.[source: The Guardian]

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