In the run up to the release of Apocalypto, Mel Gibson's follow-up to The Passion Of The Christ, the director courted a deal of controversy with widely reported comments to a police officer. But, as this film confirms, Gibson is a talented director who enjoys taking on risky projects. In these times of movie making by committee this is to be applauded.
Apocalypto is certainly a risk. Set in the 15th century prior to the arrival of the Spanish, it follows the fortunes of Mayan villager Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and others from his tribe who live and thrive in the forest. Jaguar Paw and many others are captured by soldiers of a city-dwelling society. On the perilous way from forest to metropolis many of the tribe perish but Jaguar Paw endeavours to return back to his village to be reunited with his wife and child, hidden away from the maurauders.
The biggest gamble is to have the whole film spoken in Yucatec Mayan, with subtitles, but it certainly does not detract from the action. The film is part history lesson (if not always an accurate one) and part action adventure. It is refreshing to see very little CGI, almost all the fighting is up close and is occasionally very gruesome. However, this film attempts to give the body count some meaning - one more reason why this film is beyond the category of typical Hollywood blockbuster.
The clever thing about this film is that it does not show the past as pretty and picturesque. Through Jaguar Paw's eyes we see dirt, poverty and sickness within the Mayan city as well as lofty temple buildings and grand structures. Furthermore, the people are also complex; this is a society in meltdown, with failing crops and rampant disease, a city imploding. The gross excess in human sacrifice takes on more meaning when seen through the eyes of a civilization that has placed too much faith in its royal family and which is fast becoming desperate.
At the beginning of the film there is a quote by W Durant "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within" What Gibson and his writing partner Farhad Safina have created is a story which shows that there were problems in the Mayan society long before the white man arrived.
Gibson has taken a real gamble by casting no big name stars. Rudy Youngblood repays the faith of his director as the emotional heart of the piece, playing the hero Jaguar Paw, but he gets ample support from Dalia Hernandez as Seven, his wife, and Morris Birdyellowhead, who plays his father, Flint Sky.
There are flashes of real humour and tragedy in this film and it is thanks to the actors, who make the sometimes grandiose and over the top speeches sound normal and often noble, and the director's talent for storytelling.
Apocalypto is not going to be for everybody, despite hitting the top of the US box office. The subject matter is obscure, yet the human tale at its heart renders that less of a problem than it might have been in less capable hands. Fundamentally, you won't have seen anything quite like it.