January 15th, 2007
This Mel Gibson film is both a very exotic period piece and an old-fashioned chase movie.
We’re on the Yucatan peninsula, sometime toward the end of the Mayan civilization. The language is Yucatec with English subtitles. The action moves from a jungle village, where the people hunt tapirs and play practical jokes, to the capital, where the aristocracy and the priests are engaged in gaudy human sacrifice.
A tapir is like a wild boar or a wart hog, but it doesn’t have tusks. Or warts.
Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), the chief’s son, has a very frightening dream of the future.
Jaguar Paw is captured and taken to the capital to be sacrificed, but first he stashes his pregnant wife and little son in a dry well. He plans to get back and save them before the rains come.
At the capital famine, drought, and pestilence are epidemic. A Cassandra-like little girl, whose mother has died of smallpox, prophesies destruction.
The captives are painted blue and taken to the top of a pyramid to be sacrificed, but Jaguar Paw is miraculously saved.
The rest of the movie is a classic chase through the jungle, as Jaguar Paw tries to elude a murderous posse led by the dedicated and extremely frightening Zero Wolf (Raul Trujillo).
Jaguar Paw gets back in the nick of time.
This movie ends where The New World begins, although students of history say the timing is wrong. Jaguar Paw leads his family into the jungle and away from the Spaniards, seeking a new beginning. (According to Gibson, “Apocalypto” is Greek for “new beginning,” although I was unable to confirm this in a search of Greek/English online dictionaries.)
The meaning of this ending is unclear to me. Which is the new beginning - Indians living reclusively in the jungle, or the Spanish conquest? We know the answer, but it’s not clear if this movie does.
It’s possible that director Gibson thinks the Spanish priests represent a new beginning for the Maya. This is so ridiculous that it is beneath consideration. Everyone knows the priests brought nothing but famine, pestilence, and death to the Maya. And of course they stole their gold.
I love period pieces, especially when they are as wild and exotic as this one. The scene at the sacrifices is mesmerizingly weird, and the costumes are mind-boggling.
I don’t think it’s very deep. It’s an adrenalin-racing chase flick, spiced with extreme violence and fantastic costumes. The tattoos and piercings are miles beyond anything I’ve seen on Bank Street.
The film has some references to contemporary concerns. For example, the village storyteller spins a prophetic tale of “Man,” who has been given all the gifts of every other animal, but is never satisfied.
This seems perfunctory to me. I think it is tossed in to try and make the movie seem more serious than it is.
I noticed two references to contemporary films. Although I’m pleased with myself for catching them, I don’t think they belong. Obvious and self-indulgent, they aren’t subtle or relevant enough to work as homages.
(I’m not going to spell them out. One refers to the Dustin Hoffman / Jon Voight classic Midnight Cowboy, and the other to the more recent Nicole Kidman / Jude Law flick Cold Mountain.)
(I like both those movies! If I get time I’ll watch them again and post reviews. It’s like I always say: There are so many movies and so little time.)
Some have compared this film to the Canadian Inuit masterpiece Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner. I think Atanarjuat is a much better film, but the comparison is not unwarranted. It’s a bit like that.
You should watch it. You’ll probably like it.