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APOCALYPTO (director/writer: Mel Gibson; screenwriter: Farhad Safinia; cinematographer: Dean Semler; editors: John Wright/Kevin Stitt ; music: James Horner; cast: Rudy Youngblood (Jaguar Paw), Dalia Hernandez (Seven), Jonathan Brewer (Blunted), Morris Birdyellowhead (Flint Sky), Carlos Emilio Baez (Turtles Run), Raoul Trujillo (Zero Wolf, leader of marauders), Ramirez Amilcar (Curl Nose), Israel Contreras (Smoke Frog), Israel Rios (Cocoa Leaf), María Isabel Díaz (Mother in Law), Espiridion Acosta Cache (Old Story Teller), Mayra Serbulo (Young Woman), Iazua Larios (Sky Flower), Lorena Hernández (Village Girl), Itandehui Gutierrez (Wife); Runtime: 136; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Mel Gibson/Bruce Davey; Buena Vista Pictures & Touchstone Pictures; 2006-in Maya with English subtitles)
“It’s all Shock and Awe, but for what?”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Anti-Semitic Mel Gibson, who in a drunken rage held Jews responsible for all wars, evidently doesn’t blame them for the strife in this bloody fall of Mayan civilization film (the Mayans ruled present-day Mexico and Central America from 2400 B.C. to the 15th century A.D.). It happens to be rife with historical errors (even the ever charming publicity seeking Mel in an interview has said he just made it up; anyway it’s impossible to know the exact truth because the Mayan civilization collapsed hundreds of years before the Spanish conquest and we don’t have a European history to fall back on for these pyramid builders, mathematicians, astronomers and artists). In any case, the film is filled with excessive characterizations that are crude and not too subtle, and is overloaded with Gibson’s usual central theme of a very violent tribal world at war between the easy to distinguish forces of good and evil. It’s a return to more conventional Hollywood storytelling (even if the filmmaking is more flamboyant and personal, and as critics indicate more in the style of an auteur) in how it tackles history in the same way as do conventional mainstream films such as Ridley Scott’s carnage filled “Gladiator,” or a simplistic heroic film Mel starred in but was directed by Roland Emmerich called “The Patriot,” or his Oscar-winning tale of heroes and villains called “Braveheart.” Thereby Mel shows he’s less interested in historical or cultural authenticity than in imposing his own view on history (co-written with Farhad Safinia) as a thrill ride with faint references to history rather than to educate or be a visionary or thought-provoking experience. Gibson proves once again that he has the ability to connect with the greater public’s need to follow a bloody simple-minded adventure story and not be too concerned with adding anything else but his own primitive conservative Christian take on his subject matter (when he gets a chance, he calls out paganism as barbaric and tacks on Christian symbols to this Mayan tale, such as the hero receiving a Jesus-like wound). It seems as if Mel thinks the story isn’t worth telling unless seen through his so-called blood-curdling Christian eyes. But I guess some of us–not fans of the troubled filmmaker or sympathetic to his alcohol related problems or his bigoted religious fervor or his aesthetics being reduced to theme films of half-naked men being brutalized by evil-doers or convinced his fiery interpretation of Christianity is not saying something divisive about the religion that is at odds with its pacifist martyr who preached a universal message of love–should be grateful that here he just tries to make it a sensationalized exploitation film on violence without any of the bogus religious baggage he laid on us with his The Passion of The Christ. Gibson now tackles mythic history and has the body pierced savages of the dying empire go on a blood bath. It has such unpleasantness that’s as ghastly as Holocaust imagery of corpses, a disembowelment, an impaling, clubbings, a beheading, blood lettings of all sorts, mass rapes of women, butchering of children and merely offers verbal threats of a flailing rather than offering us that treat on the screen. If you think all this violence is a thing of beauty and a necessity, then we’re not on the same page. It’s all Shock and Awe, but for what?

It has an opening quote from historian Will Durant about “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” The quote takes aim at the decline of imperial Rome and might also serve as a warning to the United States, as the filmmaker tries to make comparisons with the way old empires have fallen to the way new empires might also fall through greed, poor leadership, continual strife, fear and futile wars. The subtitled (the actors speaking modern Yucatec, which is an outgrowth from their Mayan descendents) and overlong film at 136 minutes comes with a title translating to “new beginnings.” It begs to be taken seriously even if it’s only about blood sacrifices and ignores everything else that might have been imaginative or worthwhile about Mayan civilization before its fall. It features a cast of mostly Mexican Indians and is set in pre-Columbian time in the 16th-century in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula (it was shot on locations near Veracruz and in the rain forests of Catemaco, with additional shooting in Costa Rica and the U.K).

It begins with comic relief, at a time when the Mayan civilization was to fall, as a tribe of peaceful Mesoamerican forest dwellers are seen pulling a harmless prank of getting an unsuspecting tribal member to dine on a dead animal’s butchered testicles. This idyllic time for the Sugar Tit tribe, the good guys who are in harmony with nature, soon ends in a violent way as their village is raided by fierce torch-bearing tattooed Mayans from the Holcane tribe, who set huts ablaze, club and knife most of the peaceful village’s women and children to death, and hold the men as prisoners and slaves. They do this because their leaders are convinced that unless they appease their gods with more temples built and more human sacrifices, the drought and disease plaguing the land will continue. The film’s hero, who is explained as a messenger of God, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood, an American actor), is shackled to a pole (might as well be a cross) and is forced to endure with three others a long bloody march through the rain forest to the Mayans’ capital city to await further abuse at their Temple of Doom. The lucky viewers are given the opportunity to see these brutalities played out in all their gore, which some of my fellow critics think is great filmmaking and serves as a meditation against human sacrifice by the ignorant. I disagree, and call it cheap filmmaking that plays down to its audience instead of raising them to greater heights. It’s pretty much the same problem I had with Scorsese’s recent film The Departed, which incidentally had a less pretentious vision of violence as an art form and a better sense of humor at what it was shooting for (Mel’s comedy is of the low-brow variety, as always).

The first half of the film ends with our hero miraculously (through filmmaking contrivances) escaping the High Priest’s final solution and the barefooted Jaguar Paw is chased through the jungle by soldiers as he dodges spears and overcomes quicksand and the like. After an hour of running through an obstacle course of terror Jaguar Paw finds his way home to his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and son, to only find that they are trapped in the bottom of a pit.

This leads, if you believe, to an even bloodier and sillier second half. It gives way to being a pure action thriller with chases, blunt realistic massacres (no lyrical workings for our boy Mel) and multiple cliffhanger scenes like in those old serial films, and the fun is in watching how many different ways a vic can die and how our hero can escape misfortune and help his family survive such an ordeal. The over-the-edge gore becomes too fantastic to have any real impact except as uninvolving videogame type of cartoonish violence and it brings on an empty feeling as the atrocities start piling up. So when a spear goes from the back of a running man’s head through his mouth, my first thought was to praise Mel for this wonderful shot and not be too concerned with the agonizing scene. There’s definitely a place for such pathological movies, and if viewers fawn over such films– who am I to say they shouldn’t? I’ll grant you that it’s a lavish production with a fine eye for details and the bloody blockbuster action sequences are well-staged for entertainment purposes only but, for those who are still with me, let me state it’s pure hokum masquerading as history.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”