I saw Apocalypto last night/early this morning, catching the last show of the night. It is very good, as most critics have acknowledged. It is a unique work of art, and I do not mean that dismissively or pejoratively. It has contributed something hitherto unseen to the world of cinema, but it is not so strange or unusual that the audience will be lost. Moviegoers who want to see something they have never quite seen before should flock to see this; those who are simply interested in an engaging story and an adventure in a Mesoamerican setting will also be reasonably well satisfied.
Visually, it is one of the better-crafted films of recent years. The cinematography seems to this humble viewer to be as good as it gets. My one gripe here would be that Gibson uses POV too often when it does not seem to add all that much. The recreated temple complex and city have been portrayed masterfully, and the richness and level of exquisite, beautiful detail in costume and make-up will have to earn the film an Oscar for that if it wins for nothing else. It is almost wrong that more time in the film is not spent in this ornately decorated, carefully staged world, because it is clear so much time and work went into creating it for us. Compared to this part of Apocalypto, most historical dramas are laughably weak. Perhaps the only modern film about the ancient or medieval world that includes anywhere near the same attention to detail is Alexander, but this is a much better movie than Alexander and surpasses it in this area as well.
Filmed in Yucatec Maya, as we all know by now, it is another triumph of a Gibson blockbuster foreign-language film. On a personal note, a couple weird, unexpected parallels with other languages–to which there can be no historical connections–kept occurring to me as I listened to it. Evidently, “ha” means yes, which also occurs in Armenian and Hindi, and the negative imperative was something like “ma,” which might remind students of Greek or Armenian of the mi and me negative imperatives respectively. For me, these few superficial similarities made the experience all the less alien. The dialogue is not at such a high or academic level that the use of another language becomes an impediment to the flow of the movie. After a very short while, many of the basic words and phrases used repeatedly become more familiar. The subtitles do not intrude.
Dramatically, it follows a straightforward loss-transformation-return structure, the classic archetypical hero tale, and joins it together with an elemental man vs. man kind of story. If stories of loyalty and duty to one’s own people and family are stories that you want to see, you will want to see this movie. If you feel uncomfortable watching the depredations of a decadent elite and find that the demagogic preaching of a bloodstained functionary hits a little too close to home, you may want to stay away.
I don’t want to give away too much, but there are some basic themes of this movie that seem to have been lost in all the hubbub about depictions of human sacrifice and filming in Yucatec. The first is a simple one, but one that defines the central character, which is Jaguar Paw’s father’s lesson that “fear is a sickness.” The story reveals how Jaguar Paw “strikes” that fear from his heart in the tradition of all good adventure heroes. There is nothing elaborate or perhaps even very clever in this, but this is fundamental to the entire story and it is a shame it has not received more attention. Perhaps it is so obvious that it seems unworthy of mention, but it caught my attention. But since so many critics seem to be responding to the film with remarks like, “It’s very pretty, but what’s the point?” it bears mentioning that it is making several fairly obvious points, of which this is the simplest one.
Another one of these points, and this is the moral of the story, is pretty clearly that of hubris calling down nemesis. This is hubris in both its senses of violence and arrogance, which invites the downfall of those who try to raise themselves up too high or who believe about themselves that, as the bloody priest claims, “we are a people of destiny, we are masters of time.” Whom the gods would destroy, they first make insufferably self-important. These words do not necessarily echo (and indict) any particular leader, any particular elite or any particular civilisation (though it is a timeless message and one that all would do well to heed), but rather the tendency of every ruler, every people and every civilisation in its time to claim the mantle of the predestined, the chosen, the invincible, History’s favourites for whom the rules are different and to whom the normal course of history, change and decay does not apply. The perfect irony of the priest’s declaration to be one of the masters of time on the eve of his civilisation’s fall seems to have been somewhat lost on many of the critics. If we cannot see how this lesson relates to us or how we can make use of it, we really are in trouble. If the audience forgets or overlooks this part of the film, I think they have pretty much missed what Gibson is trying to say.
Unfortunately, all the critics have done Apocalypto a grave disservice in their emphasis on its supposedly overwhelming violence. This aspect of the film has been talked up so much that it almost convinced me, sight unseen, to not see it because the way people were describing it I came away with the impression that this was going to be something like the Chichen Itza Chainsaw Massacre. It was nothing like that, and not anywhere even close. In the last decade, we have been treated to a number of non-horror films (and undoubtedly piles of horror movies) that far exceed Apocalypto in brutality, gore and general bloodletting. Perhaps that is hardly the standard by which we should judge it, but if we are going to damn Apocalypto as being somehow exceptionally violent and gory (which, by any reasonable standard, it really isn’t) we would have to condemn Gladiator and The Passion with even more vehemence. An earlier Gibson project, We Were Soldiers Once, has such graphic injuries from napalm and shrapnel that they make the wounds in Apocalypto seem pretty ordinary. You could make an argument that war movies today are inevitably bloodier, but then this would force us to make certain allowances for Apocalypto, which contains a very small-scale war but one that is no more and no less brutal than the hack-and-slash battle scenes of Braveheart.
It may not surprise some, but in terms of sheer brutality and bloodiness The Passion outruns Apocalypto by a mile. Perhaps predictably, Gladiator is far more violent, but like Gladiator Apocalypto neither dwells on the gore nor does it minimise the viciousness of hand-to-hand combat nor does it avoid the mostly realistic depiction of wounds. Unlike Gladiator, Apocalypto is not just a revenge-and-eternal glory pic (which is perforce what Gladiator had to be once Maximus’ family is dead), but is genuinely a story about the “good home, worth fighting for” that Richard Harris’ Marcus Aurelius observes about Maximus’ home. The end of the story, to which I will only allude, is one that declares that we should look to our own and mind our own business. If we have a good home, we should fight for it, and leave the mastery of time and destiny to the bloody-minded frauds who make it their business to slaughter other people for their own advantage. It is, in its way, the greatest anti-statist movie of the last ten years. Eat your heart out, Vendetta.