A footrace against the forces of time, Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” runs with Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young Mayan with wife, child and child on the way, who must run, for over two hours, from becoming a human sacrifice.
Gibson, like George Lucas, is the most independent of filmmakers, self-financing to the tune of “it’s my dime, give me your dollars.” (This may be part of why Disney, while cautious, isn’t panicking in the face of Gibson’s “Sugartits” drunk-driving, racial-ranting fiasco earlier this year.) As a director of action, his borrowings and variations only begin with “The Most Dangerous Game”’s man-hunts-man archetype. (He spends his millions more ingeniously than the man from Marin County, including a “2001” reference that works twice.) “Apocalypto” and its trailer begin with a quotation from Will Durant, co-author of “The Story of Civilization” whose reign (with partner Ariel) on the shelves of Book-of-the-Month Club subscribers would have coincided with Gibson’s formative years. “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within,” the epigraph reads. Movies cannot help but be parables and history is ever analogous to the present day. Is Gibson concerned with the godless Western world? The Arab world? America? Tactfully, “Apocalypto,” in subtitled Mayan tongues, largely pursues what Gibson again proves most adept at: the depiction of excruciatingly vibrant violence, in the service of power’s barbaric actions to hold onto authority. The elaborate and diffuse brutality, more disparate than the mere homoerotic sadism of shredding the blooded body of Christ, often takes the breath away.
While there are gags galore and jokes in the subtitles—“Just get busy,” a mother-in-law tells her infertile son-in-law; “He’s fucked” to a character who’s multiply so; an unlikely “Midnight Cowboy” reference, plus a bonus, sustained fellatio prank. Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia’s subtitled pronunciamentos are as serious as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick (another trick Gibson liberally indulges). “Deep rotting fear. They are infected with it. Fear is a disease.” I don’t remember lines like that in any other Disney films this year. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Death of Civilization”? (Maybe that’s the third of the trilogy.) A sharp, equally pointed subtitle: “Now that you’re up, can you please kill that dog?”
Not as homely as the drably shot “The Passion of the Christ,” Gibson’s director of photography, Dean Semler (“The Road Warrior,” “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” “Waterworld”) shot entirely with new Genesis high-definition video cameras for transfer to 35mm, with striking results: there are textures to the jungle scenes and close-ups of the beautifully cast faces that take advantage of the strengths of the HD format. (And the opening chase through underbrush of a stuck tapir doesn’t display telltale signs of its video origins.) HD’s affection for the texture of darker skin is also striking throughout. Beyond some weirdly low angles in the opening scenes, there is hardly a foot put wrong formally. (You will not forget the shot of Jaguar Paw, hued in dyes of Superman blue, kicking in clouds of vertical mist as he falls along a waterfall.)
“Apocalypto” travels from isolated hamlet to the heights of Mayan temples, and Gibson’s patient reveal along the journey is inspired, with a level of spectacle that John Boorman might admire. A poxed child they meet along the way tops all the infant warriors of “Blood Diamond.” Sloe-eyed, feline, the small one says, “You fear me. So you should, all ye who are vile. Would you like to know how you are to die?” She predicts an apocalypse and stares up at the fearful men with all the power of Linda Blair pissing a carpet in front of an astronaut in “The Exorcist.”
From verdant cloister of jungle to rushing rapids to an insurgent city, an agora of chattel and charnel, despoiled by overbuilding, over-farming, and overpopulation, like the favelas of Rio, the shanties of Soweto, the pyres of the Ganges, the imagery is indelible. With pikes of severed heads in stages of mummification, a single eyeball scattering in a wide shot and giddy cheerleader squads at the base of the pyramids beneath the human sacrifices, Gibson delivers tapestry-level detailing. (Boorman, whose tales of primitives include the mad “Zardoz,” ought to “oooooh” at the point-of-view from a just-decapitated head.) When the high priest invokes the “great people of the banner of the sun… destined to be the Masters of time, nearest to the gods,” one can only think of a Rapture parable, as well as “Hello, Washington, D.C.!”
Every other inch of the barely clad jungle citizens is ornamented with body modifications—the most underestimated audience for “Apocalypto” may be a crowd that favors elaborate tattoos, scarification and nostril and brow and helix and rhino and septum and labret and tragus and third-eye piercing on men, women and children.
The last shot is beautiful; a few shots earlier could well be the shot that precedes the opening shot of Werner Herzog’s 1972 “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.”
“Apocalypto” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” open Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.