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Apocalypto

dir: Mad Mel Gibson
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Ah, Mad Mel is at it again. He had money before, to be sure, from his successful career as an actor, director and bus driver. He’s even received Oscars for his efforts. Actual Oscars, not just Logies or Golden Globes or Berlin Film Festival Golden Bears.

Then, led by his strong Catholic faith, he decided to make a film about a guy getting nailed to two planks of wood.

The Passion of the Christ made an absolute packet at the box office, ignited religious furore and debate across the world, and, more importantly, gave Mel an incredible war chest from which he would be able to fund and make whatever films he wants for the rest of his life. You can argue that such a circumstance doesn’t guarantee that anyone will distribute or see his films, but getting them made without having to kowtow to conga lines of producers or studio executives is more than half the battle.

Which is how and why we can get to see a film set 500 years ago with dialogue spoken exclusively in Mayan, where human sacrifice and brutal jungle deaths are the norm in a film that mostly avoids any conventional narrative or structure. Mel doesn’t need anyone’s approval or permission any more to make what he wants how he wants. He has no constraints, either financial or organisational, so he can completely give in to the madness that bounces around in his head.

For he is truly mad. I don’t necessarily mean it in the clinical sense, though he probably is that too. I mean he’s mad because he either can’t help himself or fully loves losing himself into his obsessions.

His demons have become the stuff of legend and tabloid fodder, and his recent drunken forays into screaming at the police and cursing the Jews don’t go any further towards disproving the ‘Madness of King Mel’ theory. That this madness can be focussed into a particular direction means that the product can be representative of a unique directorial vision.

Apocalypto is a strange film. It has strong elements and themes that seem to predispose it to being seen as a morality play, since it begins with a quote alluding to the reason why civilisations fall apart. It also seems like its intention is to give us an ethnographic – historical tour of an old civilisation to show us just how barbaric and freaky people could be back then.

But, past that, it has the tension and excitement level of a top notch action film. And plenty of brutal, agonising violence.

Let’s also not forget that Mel has said multiple times during and after the creation of this film that it is his not-so-subtle indictment of the current US Administration, its corruption and its barbarity (in his eyes, not mine. I love them like the loyal minion that I am). So there’s a political subtext going on here as well.

There isn’t enough context given for us to truly feel like we’ve just received a lecture on Mayan civilisation and history. We are given a glimpse of their decadent society in all its glory, but it isn’t explained to us. We are as confused and, in a way as frightened as the people being dragged up to the sacrificial altar to their brutal fate.

Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and the rest of his noble savage fellow villagers live in simple harmony with nature in a jungle on the Yucatan Peninsula, part of present day east coast Mexico. The film’s first half hour gives us an insight into their simple lives, their concerns (hunting and making babies) and their sense of humour as they play wicked practical jokes on each other. This is the bit that’s supposed to make us care about at least some of the characters. We spend most of the time with Jaguar Paw and his family, his wife and son, and his father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), the village chief.

Pretty soon, their idyllic existence is shattered when some citified, uppity Mayans come along with fire and better clubs and kill many of the villagers whilst taking the rest prisoner. They are led by a formidable and imposing leader called Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), who task it is to hunt down the weaker outsiders and to bring them to the capital in order to make some money.

One of Zero Wolf’s minions, Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena) is even more vicious than the other guys, and takes a special delight in torturing and murdering the people close to Jaguar Paw. His gleeful sadism makes an interesting contrast to Zero Wolf’s coldly imperious demeanour, though we have no doubt who is the more lethal of the two.

See, there’s a demand for everything, even in this old world. Capitalism says, in its most simpleminded and simplistic form, that where there’s demand, if the price is high enough, there’s always going to be someone willing to supply it.

The city Mayans need people to sacrifice on their pyramid altars to appease their sun god. None of the details of how this is done or carried out are stinted upon. It is genuinely horrific, but fascinating to watch. We never get to learn the elaborate hierarchy of this society, who particular people are, what the different levels within the society are, because we only get brief glimpses of the people and their carryings-on.

As accurate or inaccurate as the city scenes are, they are put together in an almost unbelievably vivid way. Though we might have memories or reference points from other media or books that recall the images of what we’re seeing, it is akin to looking into the workings of a completely alien civilisation. Societies on science fiction programs have more reference points for us. This, this stuff here is just incredible.

We are given several overt and subtle tips to how their society has degenerated and become decadent, but nothing reinforces that fact more than the horrifically mundane way in which they lead people to the slaughter at the top of the pyramid. Mounds of bodies, heads rolling down the steps, hearts cut still beating from victim’s chests: this sounds overdone, but the tone and the cinematography invest these scenes with horror and absolute seriousness.

Of course, whether you take it that way or not is a completely different matter. Stuff like this, no matter how seriously it is done, can look darkly comical to seasoned moviegoers. And it doesn’t help that Gibson can’t help himself. He deliberately ends up using some sequences in a way that almost parody the reputation he has earned for himself as a director.

In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer convinces Gibson to redo the end of his remake of Mr Deeds Goes to Washington so that, for no earthly reason, Gibson kills most of Congress, severs the head of the Speaker of the House by throwing the Congressional Seal at him like it’s a Frisbee, and impales the Senate Leader on an American flag.

There are scenes here where Gibson seems to be trying to outdo even that level of violent absurdity.

These moments, though they should, don’t detract from the overall story, at least for me. Because, in the end what we want is for Jaguar Paw and his people to somehow avoid the High Priest’s knife, and to escape to freedom. And maybe get a little bit of payback along the way. It’s unsophisticated, but our base appetites and fears, as is the film’s overall point, are part of who we are as a species and lead some of us to destruction, and others to survival.

Our hopes and fears rest with Jaguar Paw as he tries to evade his fate. The last third of the film is structured around the adrenalin-filled chase of Jaguar Paw by badass Zero Wolf and his henchmen through the jungle. And it’s pretty exciting. Veteran cinematographer Dean Semler uses a mixture of handheld digital video and film to make this story come alive, and most of the time it looks amazing enough to transport us to this old world with plenty of willing suspension of disbelief.

It’s hard to fault any of the acting here, since everyone speaks in Mayan, and slowly, too, despite the fact that there are subtitles, but this is not a film that is dialogue heavy or exposition-laden. There’s plenty here that other directors would have wanted spelled out, but it doesn’t matter. Still, Jaguar Paw and Zero Wolf are very good in their roles. Most of the other people don’t matter, but they do a great job of seeming like they are from this bizarre world, and aren’t just actors playacting at it.

It almost hurts to say this, since Gibson has brought so much suffering upon the world with many of his other significantly dumber films, but this truly is an amazing achievement. It’s a very simple story told as powerfully and as vividly as possible by someone who knows how to make a violent, visceral action film entertaining.

This is every bit as amazing and compelling an achievement as Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God or Apocalypse Now (though I’m not saying it’s anywhere near as good as those two films), more so because of the single-mindedness and obsessive – compulsiveness demanded by these films in order to be brought into existence.
I suspect it is also a film where, like the aforementioned, the story of how the film got made would be as fascinating as the film itself, if not more so.

I can’t recommend it highly or lowly enough, but I would warn people that, in the packed cinema I saw it in yesterday, many people walked out, and I don’t think it was just the violence. This is not an easy film by any stretch of the imagination, regardless of what you think of loopy boy Mad Mel.

8 times I’ve never screamed anti-Semitic abuse at the cops no matter how drunk I’ve been out of 10

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“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” – Will Durant, Apocalypto.

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