Apocalypto
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Apocalypto

Like most people I was just thinking to myself, ‘it’s been a long time since I watched a film entirely in ancient Mayan." I have films in French, German, Russian and Swedish but Apocalypto is my first in Mayan. Since I live in Brooklyn, New York a film in English is technically a foreign language film, so the need for subtitles is not a big deal. What matters here is this is a film that is emotional, packed with action that transcends the unusual choice in language. Mel Gibson scores again with another controversial film, hot on the heels of his much debated ‘Passion of the Christ.' It 'd be good if Mr. Gibson would consider a more familiar language to work in but he does know how to construct a film. There is a line used in many of the television spots when this film was in the theaters. It states that for something to begin something has to end. This is at the heart of this film. The film is not intended to be a historical documentary, so there is some liberal use of dramatic license at play here. Go to the History Channel for the facts; come to this movie for the drama and action.

The film personalizes the declining days of the Mayan civilization mostly through the experience of one man, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). While on a hunt with others of his tribe, including his father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), the men come across a group of refugees. The group is dazed and traumatized, but their leader manages to relate how their lands have been invaded. Flint Sky warns his son not to let the tale of these strangers affect him, but Jaguar Paw retreats to his thoughts as the others in his tribe celebrate the hunt. When Jaguar Paw awakens from his troubled sleep, his village is under attack. The Raiders, led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), are in the process of burning the huts of the village. Thinking fast Jaguar Paw gathers his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernández) and their son Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Báez) and takes them to safety in a nearby cave. He goes back to defend his village but, like the rest of the tribe, is soon held captive. One of the Raiders, Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena), slits the throat of Flint Sky as his son watches helplessly. As the raiders march their prisoners out of the destroyed village, one of them sees a vine and cuts it. This traps Seven and her son in the cave. On the trek back to the city of raiders they come across a sick girl who warns them that their end is in sight. The women and female children from the captured tribe are to be sold as slaves. Taking the men to the top of a pyramid to sacrificed through the removal of their still beating hearts to appease their gods. Just as Jaguar Paw is about to met his death a solar eclipse occurs. The priest declares that this is an omen that the gods are satisfied allowing the Jaguar Paw. The priest tells Zero Wolf to dispose of the rest of the captives. He takes them to a field where they are released. They have to run the length of the area while Zero Wolf’s men hurl spears and arrows at them. Jaguar Paw is injured but makes it to the finish line but in the process kills Cut Rock (Ricardo Diaz Mendoza), the son of Zero Wolf. Outraged Zero Wolf chases Jaguar Paw into the jungle. In the end, it takes the sight of the Spanish landing on their shores to distract Zero Wolf and his men allowing Jaguar Paw to escape back to his family.

There is one thing that can be said about Mel Gibson, being subtle is not one of his strong character traits. This film is explicit, bloody and violent. There has been some controversy about how the cultures shown here are depicted. Again, this is not intended to be historically accurate, so such criticism must be taken with a grain of salt. There is an irony here that Gibson has paced this film much like a story told around the campfires of ancient civilizations, ironic because the language can not be understood by anyone lacking a graduate degree in Mayan. A lot has been said about the choice of language, but we do watch foreign language films and many great films require the audience to read the subtitles. What does not need subtitles is the humanity of the movie. At its heart is a man’s desperate need to survivor to save his family. Jaguar Paw has to face dead time and time again just to get back to that cave. The violence is extreme here, something that is becoming a director’s trademark for Gibson. He does have a heavy handed approach especially in the first hour or so. This part of the film beats down the audience with its graphic scenes. There is also a contrast between the raiders who only want to end a devastating drought through human sacrifice and the fact that the point is moot. As they do unspeakable things to their enemies, they don’t realize that men in ships and armor are about to put and end to their civilization.

Most of the cast is made up of unknown or novice Mexican actors. It really wouldn’t work to have artists well known for this type of film. Rudy Youngblood is excellent as Jaguar Paw. He has the talent to emote well conveying the themes and story. He has a commanding stage presence that helps to carry the film. You may recognize Raoul Trujillo. He has a long career in American films and television, usually as the heavy. Here he does well as the villain of the piece. As with the best film evil his actions is a matter of perspective. To his people he is a hero, defending their way of life. To the small village, he is dead. Trujillo can layer his performance getting this across to the audience.

Although Gibson financed this film on his own, he did arrange for distribution through Buena Vista. As usual, they have done an incredible job in bringing the film to DVD and Blu-ray DVD. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is exceptional, even by today’s high standards. The color palette is balanced to perfection. The contrast is excellent even in scenes where there is a transition from dark to light. For the audio, there is a choice between Dolby 5.1 and DTS. Both are in Mayan with English subtitles. The sound field is expansive. It surrounds you and pulls you into the film. In the scenes in the jungle, you can hear every little noise. There is also more than the usual selection of extras. First, there is a director’s commentary track featuring Gibson and producer Farhad Safinia. They detail the difficulties in making a romantic film such as this. The deleted scenes are available with an optional commentary with Gibson and Safinia. Rounding things off is a making of featurette. It takes a lot to do a film almost entirely on location, but this one had the added problems to a cast without much experience in film and the use of the ancient language. This is a long film clocking in at almost two and half hours, but it is worth it. Just make sure the impressionable children are in bed before watching it.

Posted: 05/17/07        07/12/2017

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