Destruction from within

Mel Gibson's latest epic, Apocalypto, tells the story of a Stone Age village attacked, its people murdered in sacrifice to a Mayan god. Beautifully shot and powerfully written, it nonetheless slips into melodrama in its efforts to make a point about contemporary society. By Declan Burke 




For all its explicit violence and suffering, Mel Gibson's latest movie, Apocalypto (15A), will find it difficult to match the notoriety of his last, The Passion of the Christ. Opening in the Stone Age Eden of a Central American jungle village, the story centres on Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a noble young Mayan warrior and the son of the village's venerable elder. The idyll, of course, is doomed: the pre-lapsarian existence is shattered when the village is invaded and over-run by a raiding party. Elderly men and women are murdered, children are abandoned to the jungle, while the adult men and women are captured and transported to the Mayan city, a hellish environment where the terrified villagers are destined to be sacrificed to the Mayan god. A beautifully made film,

Apocalypto boasts superb cinematography from Dean Semler, an eye-poppingly colourful evocation of the Mayan world that does full justice to the exotic setting and is reminiscent of John Toll's finest work in its depth and breadth. The arrow-straight narrative never flags, its full-tilt pace chock-full of action sequences, brutal warfare, gory deaths and daring escapes. The settings are fabulous, with the depiction of the Mayan city in particular harking back to the outrageous excesses of Cecil B DeMille. If there's a caveat, it is that most of the characters, especially those of the invading Mayans, are stock caricatures, although Youngblood is utterly compelling in the lead role. The finale too is unnecessarily melodramatic, particularly the bind in which Jaguar Paw's pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), finds herself. It's hard to escape the feeling that Gibson, in his rush to establish the big picture, glossed over such details. Because make no mistake, this is a Big Picture. The film opens with a quote to the effect that all civilisations destroy themselves from within before they can be conquered from without, and the dusty, soulless Mayan city is intended to be perceived as, simultaneously, the epitome and nadir of a civilisation. All life, all individualism, seems to have been sucked from the puppets who dance to the high priests' commands and cheer wildly as another sacrificial corpse bounces down the pyramid's steep steps.

This is a people, in sharp contrast to the nature-nurturing villagers, who celebrate death, both literally and symbolically. The question, of course, is to what civilisation Gibson is referring. Are we watching an individual wriggling out from under the dead hand of American Big Government and fighting to return to the wilderness? Are the invading Mayans supposed to represent the American troops who have pillaged Iraq? Is it even possible that the devastation visited on the villagers has its parallels in the Jewish experience of persecution and holocaust? Or is this Gibson suggesting that spiritual rejuvenation will always be found in people rather than the political systems or religious faiths they tend to organise themselves into?  For all its visceral violence and straightforward narrative, Apocalypto proves something of an elusive parable. Many questions are raised but no clear answers are offered, for which we should be thankful.

Apocalypto ****