WARNING : It is not possible for me to discuss this unbelievable film’s merits in full without disclosing vital spoilers. It has fatal flaws but is required viewing for any serious cinephile. 


"A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." – Will Durant.

How brutally honest of Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia to start their picture about a neighbouring civilization, with a biting statement about their own U.S.A.  The Disunited States continues to shoot itself in the foot, heart and brain with a plague of gun shootings not seen anywhere else in the planet in human history. Add to this a level of national unrest verging on civil war and the unsolicited mass murders in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq.. the list goes on. We wait to see who will conquer U.S.A from without and try to develop this doomed underdeveloped country.

As for ‘Apocalypto’, Pic looks and feels like it has been made on another planet. You have not seen another picture like in the past, and any similarly ambitious picture in the future owes a ton of scarlet maize to this one. Film depicts the abduction of a jungle tribe from a MesoAmerican forest and their terrible fate in a Mayan city, before a spectacular run towards freedom from the one man who survives this Pre-Columbian Holocaust. It is set circa 1500. Mel Gibson has not shaken the earth as an actor, but with “Passion Of The Christ”, “Apocalypto” and “Hacksaw Ridge” he has revealed himself to be an outstanding director who tells stories of electrifying depth and penetrating humanity. What a loss to the world that he spent the bulk of his career as an actor.

The whole of this brutally naked film is spoken in the language of Yucatec Maya, immeasurably authenticating the milieu already constructed with formidable verisimilitude. Producers are wary of such a stunt due to the mass audience’s xenophobia with foreign languages, but no problem if you’ve lifted yourself up by the boomerang-straps to be a movie star beforehand. Just produce the movie yourself with a cool $ 40 million and pray to the Norse Gods that the box office reciprocates your passion, as it did in this case with a richly deserved three-fold return in investment.

Pic leaps out with a thrilling tapir chase in the Mesoamerican jungle by tribesmen. Blood and removal of organs soon tell you this pikchar is not for the weak-hearted. Jaguar Paw ( a superb Rudy Youngblood ) is the most dynamic yet calm of this tribe, disclosing an innate leadership and humanity that marks out this young man. In the calm of dawn, it is he who wakes up and realizes that the jungle is subtly permeated with venomous bile from the “city” which is a two-day walk away.

All hell breaks loose with an inter-racial mass abduction that will curdle the blood with its sheer barbarism. When we round up animals and butcher them, this never occurs to us. The unrestrained force of that scene sets us up for Lucifer’s best that lies ahead. A warrior clique has been sent out from a Mayan township beyond the jungle to capture people for God-forsaken reasons. It is this hit-squad which ambushes the jungle tribe and abducts them, lashing them to a tree branch above their heads and making them walk in file. Murder, rape and torture precedes this march into the city. The devastated settlement in the forest clearing is left with children who are not abducted – one of the minor mercies of the ‘urban’ folks.

Two warriors in this military group are dominant – and each is a fascinating creature of saneema. Raoul Trujillo impressively embodies Zero Wolf – a tall, iron-muscled superman of formidable proportions with a no-nonsense face that one would not dare mess with. A stack of human jaw bones form his epaulette, smaller ivory-like pieces jut out of his nose, and a leather head-gear crowned with a little human skull deck out his severe visage. He cuts down puny humans who cross his path, and even insurrectionists in his group know not to challenge his word lest they contribute to his osseous trophies. Zero Wolf is not all Satan though – witness his love and technique for his injured son Cut Rock when he neatly cuts an incision on the latter’s periorbital haematoma with his killer bone-handled knife, while both of them are casually standing. The pressure from the released blood quickly eases and then father asks his ward “ Can you see better now ? “ Zero Wolf’s affection for his son is taken to the next level when his last scene with him features a level of poise, acceptance and love that most fathers can only dream of.

 His pre-Latin steel is contrasted with the leering evil of Middle Eye, portrayed with infinitely black sauciness by Gerardo Taracena. This is a man whose loopy feminine body language is constantly cut with ceaseless wickedness and a teasing face. Sadistic bloodlust flows from him, committing not just murders but murders of a degree not yet numerically allottable given the emotional toll and sheer cruelty with which he plans them. Audiences will be begging for the money shot where he gets his just desserts and boy does Apocalypto deliver them in gratifying style. 

The tribesmen’s forced walk to the Mayan stronghold is eventful by itself – demonstrating how each leg of this film has been arrestingly fleshed in. A massive tree is felled by nature-lovers, almost crushing the captured tribesmen, and Zero Wolf yells out ‘ Hey, I’m walking here ! “ – Gibson’s private joke referencing the 1969 scorcher ‘Midnight Cowboy’. A cute little girl and her dead mother in the field are afflicted by an exanthematous sickness, and the slave-herders push her away with a stick when she walks towards them with outflung arms asking for an embrace. More sticks push her away and then her body stiffens…  as if possessed, this little girl portentously utters a prophecy that bespeaks terrible things befalling the men.  

The arrival in the Mayan city marks the worst part of the picture ethically. No doubt, the diffuse collection of people now known as Maya and Aztecs practiced the fathomless barbarism of human sacrifice, but the Mayans also distinguished themselves in art, architecture and mathematics. Very little of this merit is seen in Apocalypto’s hack job. How many times have you seen the Maya civilization in mainstream movies ? For most of us, the answer is zilch. There was one chance here for some judicious coverage and that is stabbed in the heart with a native knife. Cultural accomplishments do not absolve the unforgivable act of human sacrifice but showing the Mayans as exclusively barbaric to satisfy the needs of an action picture is cultural murder. Granted, Gibson will contend that his filmic mandate did not include a history lesson about the Mayas’ accomplishments and he might also argue that such a detour would harm the film’s thriller momentum. These are hollow arguments. Just a five to ten minute coverage of the Maya’s positive culture would not have hurt the film’s flow. After all, the start of the film does show the forest-dwellers discussing the infinitely important matter of nature conservation. Gibson’s plan here seems to be to show the Mayan city folk in the worst light possible, in the harshest contrast to the more simple jungle dwellers. Any allegorical master plans he might have had, are undone by his one-sided agenda. 

The film’s physical and emotional flow continues relentlessly. The Mayan city, in keeping with the afore-cited hell-plan, is throbbing with filth, excrement, sick and disgusting and cruel people. Half the people on the outskirts are slaves are blanketed in white powder from mined limestone. This entire segment is covered with the worst version of humanity, with no saving graces.

The human sacrifice is shown with stunning impact. The shot-taking and cutting are top-notch- this is the pure stuff of nightmares, transplanted to broad daylight atop a tower. The King and the Priest are both pieces of work – with facial jewellery coloured by Mayan blue, fantastic head-gears and the pure beating heart of Satan guiding their action. Only a true-blue sadist would not root for the underdog, taken out of the queue when his turn comes, for the authorities to have a better look at his heart and neck.

The last segment is the most brilliant part of the picture. Director Mel Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia, Cinematographer Dean Semler and Editor John Wright ( I could not find details about the action department here) join forces to generate a spectacular, raw and pulse-pounding chase through jungle that is the stuff of pure genius. Robert Duvall’s exhilaration is understandable when he declared “This is the maybe the best movie I’ve seen in twenty-five years”. Semler and Gibson elected to use the newly introduced Panavision Genesis camera that captures fast running smoothly, and also has the ability to brighten dark frames – two very useful attributes for jungle sprints !

The knack of capturing a run smoothly in one take of reasonable length, and then splicing it up with other shots of the same nature to generate an orgy of escape, is accomplished adroitly. Shots swoop in from the canopy to jazz up the variety. You will not see useless fast cutting which fools everyone except those with intelligence and taste. The verdant moist rainforest comes alive with its awesome inhabitants. Want to know how to film a murderous jaguar ? Ask Gibson. The Young Man who will not be cut down shows extraordinary creativity in combating his scoundrel pursuers, channeling his knowledge of the jungle to virtuosic warfare. His moment of rebirth is a stroke of sylvan inspiration. The climax has a double punch – with different surprise endings to two different chases which are a triumph of top-rate writing.

Casting Director Carla Hool scores a bull’s-eye with a tremendous cross-section of good acting put on-screen. No matter who you see here – each member of the forest tribe, the kidnapping warriors, the king, the priest – they all bring various shades of excellence to their personas. Even the jaguar acts well. Dean Semler excels with his clean captures and refreshing colours, using his talent to record a palette which could otherwise have been just a sick hell-ride. John Wright does not skip a beat with his skilled weaving together of this racy epic. James Horner is superb in musically accentuating this unique beast – he pipes down when needed to be silent, rocks with palpitating beats to heighten tension and is creative enough to use modified Hindustani classical raagas in select emotional underlines.

 There are many movie reviewers who do not have the ability to appreciate action choreography. Just like you need a certain mindset to appreciate ‘Zerkalo’ and ‘Last Year in Marienbad’, you also need another type of valuable faculty to appreciate ‘Terminator 2 Judgement Day’, ‘ Matrix’, and ‘Apocalypto’s action choreography ( the themes and personal stories are a separate matter). ‘Apocalypto’ is one of the greatest action movies. But then, we come to the next question of whether this is one of the greatest movies ever. On this count, many reviewers are right. Mel Gibson, after all the hard work of making a stunning film, failed to realize that as a story teller from U.S.A  - a Post-Columbian country with a long history of vitiating other cultures - he has to be very careful not to degrade and demonize other cultures with a lopsided agenda. Yes, the Mayans had practices which beggar forgiveness, but they deserved a picture better than this one. Jaguar Paw, on the other hand, might not mind.




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