December 9, 2006 -- It's not that “Apocalypto” is violent, it is. Rather it is the film's relentless emphasis on pain, suffering, torture and mutilation and those who derive joy from inflicting these things, that sets it apart from most action films. The film is basically an extended sado-masochistic fantasy which bears little resemblance to reality. There has always been an element of this in Mel Gibson's films, dating back to to the “Road Warrior” films of his early career (films which also included a homoerotic element as well as apocalyptic visions), but in Gibson's later films, such as “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ” and now “Apocalypto,” this sado-masochist streak seems to be getting more pronounced with each film. Is this the artistic equivalent of an escalating pathology? I don't know, but I worry about Mel. He is such a powerful figure in Hollywood there is basically nothing to keep him in check but his own sanity. Is that starting to fail him?
The film starts out fairly mildly with idyllic scenes in a jungle village inhabited by a peaceful tribe of people. There is even some crude humor in these early scenes, including a practical joke involving intense genital pain (there seems to be a sexual component to this particular pathology). The hero, Jaguar Paw (played by Rudy Youngblood) is the son of the village chief and is married to a woman, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), who is expecting the couple's second child. Soon, however, the village is overrun by Mayan warriors who kill or capture all of the adults of the village, except Seven, who is hidden in a deep hole with her child.
The adults are sold as slaves, or sacrificed to the gods of the Mayans, but Jaguar Paw vows to return to his village and rescue his wife. Though wounded, he manages to escape his captors and leads them on an extended chase back to his village, where he attempts to fight off the remaining Mayan warriors. This story plays out against the backdrop of the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the same area. The movie equates the Mayans with the Spanish and depicts the Mayans to be both cruel and corrupt. Just as the Mayans invaded, attacked and conquered others, they themselves are about to be conquered by the Spanish invaders. This is a brief distillation of the argument used by all conquerors to justify mass murder, genocide, slavery or racism.
It can be argued the story also be applies to America, which has also become corrupt and cruel, is also invading other countries and also sanctions torture and executions. It could even be argued that the thousands who have died in Iraq are but human sacrifices on the altar of blind nationalism. It has long been argued that our culture is past its prime and is heading into decline. There are certainly some parallels between the Mayans, as depicted in the movie, and our own culture, including the environmental destruction that brought down the Mayan civilization.
Violence depicted in the movie includes murder, rape, beatings, removing the still-beating hearts from sacrificial victims (and not just once), beheadings, bodies pierced by spears, arrows and knives, a graphic mauling by a jaguar and many other injuries. Although the violence in the film is graphic, it is far from realistic. We are asked to believe, for instance, that a severely wounded man can not only outrun a group of fit, skilled pursuers, but also outrun a jaguar in the jungle. A man racing a jaguar in the jungle would last only scant seconds before being overtaken, unless he had a huge lead. The big cat is far faster than a human. It would be no contest, yet in the film the chase seems to go on for about five minutes, albeit in slow motion. This is done, in part, by showing the same jaguar pursuit footage over and over again in rapid flashbacks. The story also uses the old gimmick of having some of the pursuers kill each other, or themselves, during the pursuit. Some are also killed by animals. This is very convenient for the person being pursued, but it wouldn't happen that way in real life. Any talk of realism in this movie is nonsense.
What the movie does have is an extended, compelling chase, and some wonderful cinematography by Dean Semler (“We Were Soldiers”). Production of this film in Mexican jungles must have been very difficult. There is some spectacular scenery, including a high waterfall. There is no spoken English in the film. The language is Yucateco, a Mayan derivative. English subtitles translate the spoken language. There are no stars in the film. Most of the actors are non-professionals. The principal actors do a fine job. Particularly effective is a young girl who creepily predicts the demise of the Mayans. Makeup is elaborate with a lot of body piercing, even more extensive than some of the more extreme practitioners in modern society. There are also some very elaborate costumes, particularly in the scenes in the Mayan city, where we see some of the famed Mayan pyramids and other structures. There are also a lot of bare buttocks (come to think of it, there were some of those in the old “Road Warrior” films, too) and other exposed body parts. If you don't mind the sado-masochism (or maybe you get off on it), this is a decent adventure yarn with apocalyptic overtones. Otherwise, you have to suffer through a lot of vicarious pain before getting to the chase scenes. This film rates a C+.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics, theater tickets and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.