Director: Mel Gibson (Passion of the Christ)
Screenplay: Gibson, Farhad Safinia
Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Mayra Serbulo (Mezcal)
Gibson loves gore. No, that's not a new political eccentricity for the mercurial director Mel Gibson, but an inference I am drawing from his two recent films, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. In Passion, he gives us about an hour of Christ being beaten by Romans, far too much for me, favoring minimalism in film violence and sex, where less is more powerful.
In Apocalypto, Gibson's fictional Mayan hero, a Braveheart of the jungle, experiences torture at an unprecedented scale, but not improbable for those of us who have seen Passion of the Christ or traveled in the Yucatan and farther south to see the murals depicting throat slicing and decapitation as regular occurrences at Mayan athletic contests and deity offerings.
For me this realism works if it's in small doses: I can imagine the severity. Gibson just seems to revel in it, as if his art is defined by how realistic pain and suffering is presented. Apocalypto is the story of a jungle village being pillaged to bring prisoners for Mayan sacrifices atop the tall temples with the numerous narrow steps, just right for tumbling heads and detached bodies to tumble down. The young hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), is destined to lead his people from this slavery, in the spirit of Aeneas and Odysseus.
I find, however, scant attention paid to the details of character and theme development but ample superior camera work, some of it the very best of tracking running warriors in the jungle ever photographed. Gibson's camera never falters in allowing us to run with the warrior or feel the pain of watching a dear one have his heart lifted from his live stomach. His tracking of warrior and black jaguar, eventually merging the two, is breathtaking imagery. Simply stated, these jungle action sequences are worth suffering through the rest of the bloody raids, chases, and sacrifices.
So too I just saw a decidedly inferior jungle thriller, Turistas, in which organs are lifted from live young things to supply the needs of the poor Brazilians. Gringos suffer there; Indians suffer here. Everybody is in pain and the directors, Gibson at the forefront, are bent on making the torture graphic and unforgettable.
The allegorical implications of fear and slavery such as in Iraq are unavoidable, but if you're going to bash Bush and the neocons responsible for world xenophobia aimed at America, then do it without resorting to the daily doses of carnage so much a part of that horror itself.
Read Maureen Dowd's New York Times column with a side of Tom Friedman and you'll have a darn good idea of the world's insane blood lust. Apocalypto is as much an explanation for the film as it is a descriptor for the ends our current misguided colonialism. In the last sequence, Gibson references a tour de force scene from Terrence Malick's New World, but Malick had much more to say about apocalypse.