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.