Monday, February 2, 2009


I generally pride myself on an ability to separate the art from the artist. After all, I'm not going to stop watching Chinatown, far and away the greatest neo-noir film of all time, because of Roman Polanski's...personal problems. But I admit, this is now. 2006 was then. I was barely 17, and Mel Gibson went from being the guy who tortured Jesus for two hours to the most hated man in Hollywood. I missed his Apocalypto because A)I hated that other ancient film of Mel's and B)he was absolutely loony.

Finally, over two years later, I sat down with Mel Gibson's post-scandal epic, caring less about his personal life and more about the possibility for a disaster. I mean, a film about how the Maya were savages who deserved what they got? On top of the firestorm of Gibson's anti-Semitic self-defeat at the time? There's schadenfreude and there's schadenfreude, but they don't even have a term for this. So I grabbed some popcorn and plopped down to watch the last flames lick up a once-great career.

So imagine my surprise, then, when I got a good film. Hell, for what it is, it's pretty great. The Passion of the Christ, for all its flaws--and God, what a bad film it was--showcased Gibson's incredible skill as a visual filmmaker. His vision of Christ's time was possibly the most detailed ever made, and he brings that same technical care to this film. The jungles tower overhead and their roots spill out over the ground, yet somehow you get a sense of the place as the tribesmen run through the endless foliage with an exact sense of direction. When we stumble into the Mayan city, Gibson brings ancient ruins to life the same way Ridley Scott digitally renovated the Colosseum in Gladiator.

Gladiator serves as a good comparison because, like that film, Apocalypto is an action romp. No more, no less. Don't get caught up in the epic feel and that nagging sense that you should be learning something: this is a chase thriller. Our hero, Jaguar Paw, lives in a small village deep in the middle of the jungle. One day, he and members of his hunting party encounter a group of refugees who ask to pass through the tribe's land. They speak of a vicious people who burned their huts and enslaved those they didn't kill. Sometime later, these warriors invade Jaguar Paw's tribe and take him back to their city.

Our hero finds himself at the top of a Mayan temple, prepped for human sacrifice. Some stuff happens, he escapes, now he has to invade some seriously cheesed-off warriors. Now, this structure received some heat from Traci Arden, an associate professor of anthropology and an expert on Mayan culture. Her article "Is Apocalypto Pornography?" condemns Gibson for promoting "Maya on Maya violence" even though she acknowledges the civilization's brutal side. Nevertheless, she slams the filmmaker for not showing the scientific and artistic advances of the Mayan culture.

This is obviously a very smart person, but I wonder if she did not take leave of her senses while watching this. As I've said, this is just an action movie. It's also set on the precipice of the fall of the Maya. Of course we're not going to look at breakthroughs in a two hour movie: that's a slideshow, not entertainment. Furthermore, and this surprised me, Gibson doesn't exploit his indigenous actors or his background at all. Most films introduce tribes and such not so much to mock them but to place everything behind a glass case, to say "Oooooh, lookit! They almost look like us!" Gibson does no such thing; he treats the culture with a respect and at no point calls attention to his actors to pat himself on the back for going outside of Hollywood or England to find actors.

If there's a message in any of this, it's that Jaguar Paw's tiny village showcases more humanity than governments. The Spanish arrive at the end, and we know what it will mean for the Maya, but Gibson says that this is merely the continuation of the cycle of conquerors. The Maya subjugated various tribes and wound up with some monumental social and scientific advancements, and the Spanish bring with them disease and the same zealotry of the Mayan priests, but they too carry with them technological breakthroughs. At its core, Gibson's message is the same ideal Pvt. Witt believed in The Thin Red Line, albeit Malick at least shed the naïvete of this notion by showing the violence even within these small communities. Nevertheless, while Apocalypto is much simpler than some of its fans would give it credit for, it's a tightly structure, absolutely beautiful looking thrill ride. I can't stress that last part enough; if you see this film for no other reason, see it because it's one of the five most gorgeous films made in the decade.

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