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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Apocalypto (review)

The Passion of the Maya

There are two bits Mel Gibson cannot wait to get to in Apocalypto.

First is the film’s centerpiece, a re-creation of a Mayan ritual sacrifice that is fierce and exacting in all its gory detail, a pulsing orgy of still-beating hearts ripped from chests, decapitated heads being tossed around like soccer balls, and screaming masses of frenzied devotees cheering it all on from the base of the towering pyramid. It’s all clearly vital to the story, so it’s not that I’m saying the sequence shouldn’t be here. It’s the glee with which Gibson depicts it — he’s as giddy as the madly charismatic priest holding those beating hearts aloft for the swooning crowds. You’re already goggling at how in love with this stuff he is, wondering where a filmmaker’s love of cinematically fetishized sadism actually crosses a line into psychosis, and then he gives us a decapitated-head’s-eye view of, you know, a dude’s noggin falling away from his own body, and you’re like, “Oh no, he didn’t…” Oh yes, he did.
The second is the ending, which is presented so grandiloquently and with such a powerful sense of “Well? Right? Whaddaya think of that? Ironic, huh?” that the only conclusion to be drawn is that we are meant to be flabbergasted by this astonishing turn of events. Except that if you’ve been paying the slightest bit of attention to the movie itself — never mind all the TV ads and such in which Gibson all but announces what the ending must inevitably be — then after this revelation, you’re still waiting for a punch line that never comes. The big moment arrives, and you nod and say, “Yes, of course. And…?” And there’s no “and.” That’s it. And so the last impression Apocalypto leaves is this: You’ve just gotten a two-hour scolding for something you supposedly didn’t know but were in fact actually on Gibson’s side about the whole time.

That’s all a great shame. Because the rest of the film is a thrilling tale of survival and love and dedication in a world we’ve never seen on film, produced with a lavish respect for and attention to honoring that world — it’s fresh and new but universal and archetypal at the same time. The civilization of the Maya — from remote villages in quiet rainforests to cities teeming with thousands of people, from the detail of exquisite jewelry and tattoos to the monumental hugeness of cities of stone — is reproduced so gloriously that its immediacy is palpable, its modernity genuine. It doesn’t feel like a movie set — it feels like we’ve time-traveled into the actual past.

Much of that comes from the fabulous casting: all Native American faces, most of which had never acted before. Rudy Youngblood is a wonderful find as Jaguar Paw, a young man caught up in events beyond his control, ones he does not fully understand, when his forest village is attacked by strange warriors who take captive all they do not kill. A moment of brilliant foresight led Jaguar Paw to hide his pregnant wife and toddler son as the attack was unfolding, but now, as he is led further away from home, his urgency to return and rescue his little family grows with each step in the other direction. We are as in the dark as Jaguar Paw is about much of what is ahead for him, and are as mystified and amazed by much of what we see through his eyes, which makes for a hugely suspenseful story that, for all its two-hours-plus running time, speeds by, barely letting you catch your breath as it snatches Jaguar Paw from one certain death and doom only to drop him into another.

But this is not just an adventure story, and because Gibson — he wrote the script, with Farhad Safinia, as well as directs with a fiery energy — is so passionate a filmmaker and so unafraid to speak his mind, through his work as well as in other, ahem, venues, it’s not possible to look at Apocalypto in a vacuum. It’s easy to nod in agreement with him as this new film takes us through the rotten underpinnings of the Mayan civilization — its abuse of the environment, the yawning social divides between rich and poor, slaves and free people — and easy to appreciate that he’s pointing out that our own excesses will be the doom of us, too. But it’s likewise impossible to believe that he misses some of the irony in what he’s depicting here, too: the spectacle of the ritual sacrifice at the film’s heart is no different from the frenzy, in some audiences, that accompanied Gibson’s own The Passion of the Christ a couple of years ago; if Gibson could have moved his camera back a meta-step from Passion, to depict a 21st-century society in the midst of mystical ecstasy, it would have looked not unlike that Mayan city’s populace screaming for blood. (I couldn’t help but see, too, that there are only degrees of difference between the Mayan priest atop his pyramid holding a beating human heart aloft for his supplicants and the Pope on his balcony at the Vatican blessing the crowds who’ve gathered there at Easter or Christmas.)

But he does miss that irony. I’d like to think of Apocalypto as second in Gibson’s series on religious nuttery and how it can infect a society to the point of disaster, but clearly, Gibson wouldn’t.

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MPAA: rated R for sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Babbalanja

    “and then he gives us a decapitated-head’s-eye view of, you know, a dude’s noggin falling away from his own body, and you’re like, “Oh no, he didn’t…” Oh yes, he did.”
    You’d think a film ‘filosopher’ would have seen Roman Polanski’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (1971)which has the same shocking viewpoint 35 years before Gibson. Then again…

  • MaryAnn

    And that has exactly what to do with my point that Gibson is in love with this stuff?

  • One of Those “Frenzied” Folks

    I stood with my son on Easter Sunday in 2005 while Pope John Paul II gave 100,000 people his last blessing. I thought of your comparison when I watched the sacrifice scene in Apocalypto last night. There are 180 degrees of difference between the two. You certainly are “in the dark.”

  • MaryAnn

    So explain the difference.

    And yes, I am “in the dark” when it comes to religious frenzy, and proudly so.

  • One of Those

    I note that you assert a similarity without establishing it. The Mayan priest in the film Apocalypto invites his followers to watch while he murders an innocent human being and then waves around, or throws, bloody parts of his victim’s body. A pope blessing a gathering of Catholics and other visitors in St. Peter’s Square does not murder anyone. The predominantly young crowd which was there for Pope John Paul II’s final blessing of his life on Easter Sunday 2005 was both peaceful and joyful. The event was covered on TV around the world, and there were, of course, no reports of Catholics screaming for innocent people to be murdered because that never happened. Even when a crowd gathered in the square in 1981 witnessed an attempted assassination of the pope, in the aftermath there were no riots or acts of frenzy in attacking anyone. You give no explanation as to why Catholics gathered at the Vatican are to be termed frenzied.

  • Mel

    I’m really disinclined to see it just because of the fetishized scenes of Mayan ritual sacrifice–which judging by the trailer alone, are pretty wildly inconsistent with historical evidence (which is not to say that the Mayans didn’t practice human sacrifice, but it was done rather differently).

  • MaryAnn

    I note that you assert a similarity without establishing it. The Mayan priest in the film Apocalypto invites his followers to watch while he murders an innocent human being and then waves around, or throws, bloody parts of his victim’s body. A pope blessing a gathering of Catholics and other visitors in St. Peter’s Square does not murder anyone.

    I guess you deliberately ignored that whole “matter of degrees” thing. I did not say or imply that the pope murdered anyone. But in both instances — the priest on his temple, the pope on his balcony — an overly dressed religious leaders invites supplicants to wallow in superstitious ecstasy.

    Perhaps we are more “civilized” today that the rituals of bloodletting many of us continue to practice are merely metaphorical, and do not actually draw blood. But anyone who cannot see the similarities between the ritual sacrifice of Jesus on the cross — and the drinking of his blood and the eating of his flesh, which, if you’re devout, you’re supposed to believe is his actual blood and flesh, not merely ritual wine and bread — and those of captives on Mayan pyramids is deluded himself. I’m NOT saying they’re exactly identical — I understand the concept of willing sacrifice versus the murder of unwilling victims — but as I said: we’re talking matters of degrees.

    And certainly, there were lots of people seriously into the not-metaphorical bloodletting of Jim Caviezel’s cinematic Jesus in Gibson’s last film. Christians may tell themselves that there’s something sacred and holy in Jesus sacrifice, but I have no doubt the Mayans told themselves there was something sacred and holy in the sacrifice of humble villagers, too.

  • One of Those

    Understandably, you have shifted your terminology. You have moved from terms used in your review such as “frenzy” and “screaming for blood” to (in your last comment above) “overly dressed religious leaders invites supplicants to wallow in superstitious ecstasy”. So, a gathering of cheerful, peaceful people is very similar to the Mayan crowd cheering for more murders because you perceive the state of mind of those gathered to be “superstitious ecstasy.” Now that you have elaborated on the comparison made in your review, I think I understand your definition of “frenzy.” In your usage, “frenzy” means holding (a/k/a wallowing in) beliefs not acceptable to MaryAnn Johanson. Churches, office buildings, movie theaters and even open spaces (such as St. Peter’s Square) around the globe are filled with relatively calm, cheerful people who, like the crowd in the Apocalypto cheering for more slaughter, fit your definition of frenzied.

  • Robert

    It’s great the Catholic denomination has become more ecumenical (since v2), but as long as people superstitiously allow a religious leader’s pronouncements to carry more moral validity than their own human consciences, there’s the danger for religious frenzy/ecstasy/impulses/whatever to be directed in less wholesome ways than you participated in (for example, Eric Rudolph, Paul Hill, OBL, the ‘Jesus Camp’). It’s a fine line.
    ‘One of Those’, I think you’re confusing this website with James White’s.

  • MaryAnn

    relatively calm, cheerful people who, like the crowd in the Apocalypto cheering for more slaughter, fit your definition of frenzied.

    No, actually, if you go back and reread, you’ll see that I was likening the frenzy around *Passion of the Christ* to the Mayan supplicants. The people who were swooning over the onscreen torture of Jim Caviezel do not fit *my* definition, at least, of “calm” or “cheerful.”

    And you’re still missing my point about degrees of difference.

    But you go right ahead and interpret my words however you like, if that makes you feel better. Cuz it’s true: I’m the only person in the world who has no use for religion, and thinks it’s nutty.

  • Peter Connolly

    If some want to get upset about the analogy more than the point being made, let’s not stop with the catholic church. To most outsiders, US governors who execute their mentally and socially retarded prisoners while, in the process, whipping their constituents into a frenzy over justice and revenge are just like that Mayan priest. On the other hand, like the governor, this priest is doing nothing wrong in the eyes of the law of his day so judging the priest as a murderer and the crowd as bloodthirsty is like calling all catholic inquisitors psychopaths. For the most part people are products of their age and those we look back on as heroes are those with their own internal moral compass who stand against the social norms of the day. Come to think of it, Al Gore and Jimmy Carter would still look good in a cape and tights.

  • Kim

    So, here’s a question: If Gibson had never made The Passion of the Christ, would your rating be any different? Does the success of The Passion of the Christ mean that you can’t appreciate Gibson’s intent here? You seem to think that Gibson doesn’t see the relationship between American Christianity and the Mayan high priesthood, which I think is a highly disputable claim in its own right — if he intended the Mayan society to be a commentary on American culture, as most critics believe, then what else could that Mayan ceremony possibly represent? But saying that he doesn’t realize the parallel, does that really invalidate the subtext? It’s a film about the terror of religion gone unchecked, and Apocalypto hardly invalidates its own message anywhere.

    Also, I really wonder about the assertion that Christians were “swooning” over Jesus’s torture. The violence in Passion of the Christ, even more so than in Apocalypto or Braveheart, is stuff that makes the blood drain from your face. It’s much easier to enjoy (or swoon over) the violence in The Matrix or Gladiator. You can cheer that stuff. What do you mean by Christians “swooning over” The Passion of the Christ’s torture sequences? Were they cheering on the torture? Yay, go torture Jesus? Or do you mean that they recommended a film and were affected by a film with such gore and violence? Should they have been unaffected? Or should they have disliked it because of the gore and violence? Is gore and violence supposed to be an immediate thumbs down, and if so, does that go for stuff like Braveheart and The Proposition too?

    For what I think, I think Gibson likes violence very much, but he doesn’t want you to like it. He wants you to realize how much you actively dislike it. Most normal people are going to wince and cover their eyes; some sickos will jerk off to it, yeah, but what can you do about those guys?

  • MaryAnn

    To most outsiders, US governors who execute their mentally and socially retarded prisoners while, in the process, whipping their constituents into a frenzy over justice and revenge are just like that Mayan priest.

    And it looks that way to some of us insiders, too.

  • MaryAnn

    So, here’s a question: If Gibson had never made The Passion of the Christ, would your rating be any different?

    Nope. It’s Gibson’s glee for the violence that bothers me, and that’s perfectly plain in this film alone.

    if he intended the Mayan society to be a commentary on American culture, as most critics believe, then what else could that Mayan ceremony possibly represent?

    If that was the intent, then Gibson is condemning himself, because with his Jesus movie, he was the Mayan priest atop the temple. Maybe Gibson is even crazier than we think and he *is* condemning himself. But I doubt it.

    What do you mean by Christians “swooning over” The Passion of the Christ’s torture sequences? Were they cheering on the torture? Yay, go torture Jesus? Or do you mean that they recommended a film and were affected by a film with such gore and violence? Should they have been unaffected? Or should they have disliked it because of the gore and violence? Is gore and violence supposed to be an immediate thumbs down, and if so, does that go for stuff like Braveheart and The Proposition too?

    I have never, ever said or implied that gore and violence are an automatic thumbs-down. It’s what a film does with that gore and violence that is the issue. *Passion of the Christ* was meant to incite a certain bloodlust in Christians — these are people who profess to believe that the bloody sacrifice of Jesus somehow benefits them. Yes: yay, go torture Jesus, because it represents suffering that saves us all, if you believe this stuff.

    As for swooning:

    During both viewings, people were touched in an emotional manner that had not happened during the reading of the Gospel narratives. Seeing the suffering of the Saviour forced me to see how much my sin cost Jesus. I had to lay in my bed for two days, seeking the spirit of forgiveness that Christ had.

    And this is pretty much horrifying in its entirety: people seem to think that *Passion* is so powerful an “argument” for Christian beliefs that no one could refuse to believe after seeing it:

    “It’s a little bit more brutal than you would think,” said a sobbing Kim Galbreath, 29, as she left a theater in this Dallas suburb. “I mean, there were times when you felt like it was too much. But I dare anybody not to believe after watching it.”

    In the end, as Jesus rises from the grave, some in the audience quietly celebrated.

    “To me, that was the important part,” said Aaron Tucker, an English major at Penn State. “I’m like, ‘Oh, victory!’ There’s more to this movie than just the violence. It’s about triumph.”

    “If you read the Bible story, you know that Jesus died for the whole world, not just Christians,” said Oatman, who saw the film Wednesday morning. “Maybe this will get people going to church.”

    Do you think this is not precisely the reaction Gibson, supposedly a devout Catholic, was looking for?

  • Kim

    Well, I will admit, Mel Gibson’s glee for violence bothers me too — but in an interesting, challenging way. The Mayans in that ritual are so repulsive and grotesque, especially the fat little kids, but really, just everything in that city. I can’t think of a more effective way to express the horror of religious mania gone amok. A more restrained approach would not leave near the mark that Apocalypto leaves — without it, there is no movie. Without it, Apocalypto is just Rambo/Die Hard in the pre-conquistador Yucatan, and I was incredibly disappointed when the movie became just another action flick. I’m not going to say restraint can never work with something that’s supposed to be horrible, but it sure does fight it. I prefer the over-the-top approach, especially to something like this.

    Further, I really don’t know what to make of your anti-Christian argument. I mean, it’s clear that your beef is with not the violence but with the belief itself, and as this is a debate between an atheist and a religious person (though I really hesitate to call myself that), I feel we’re probably at an impasse before we start.

    But at the very least, you have to explain your distaste for religious faith a little deeper than you have. You can’t just say that Christian belief in Crucifixion is just like Mayan ritual sacrifice of prisoners, because there’s a big giant difference there, which you acknowledge. There’s only degrees of difference between Stalin and Howard Dean, too. The connection some other guy made with the death penalty and stuff makes perfect sense, it’s comparing alike things. I’m not saying there’s no connection to be made between Christianity and the Mayan religion, but I still really don’t see what you’re saying.

    I mean, if you’re going to make a Jesus movie at all, shouldn’t you be TRYING to make it powerful? When is violence and gore supposed to be used, if not for the supposedly Greatest Story Ever Told? Shouldn’t it be told like you’re trying to convert people? Or at the very least, shouldn’t you be trying to move people? What exactly is your objection here? I left Braveheart amazed at the sacrifice of William Wallace, why shouldn’t I do the same for Jesus? People made a personal connection with Passion of the Christ, and what exactly so bad about this, I ask?

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