Mel's Jungle Boogie

Let no one deny that mel Gibson is a true auteur, an artist whose films are deeply personal, intransigently independent of movie-industry fashion and possessed of a singular vision. Even if his name weren't on the title, anyone familiar with his oeuvre would be able to recognize "Mel Gibson's Apocalypto" as the work of the creator of "The Passion of the Christ," though here he foregoes Aramaic for the Yucatec language spoken by the descendants of the Mayans.

Once again he returns to his favorite theme: nearly naked men being tortured. Repeatedly. Imaginatively. At great length. "Apocalypto," however, begins on a light note: the trapping, and graphic impalement, of a tapir on a fence of spikes. Next comes a jocular moment in which the hunters--a tribe of peaceful forest dwellers in Mesoamerica circa 1517--trick one of their members into eating the dead animal's severed testicles. It isn't long before comedy is cast aside and true horror descends: the tribe, which lives in harmony with nature, is invaded by marauding, torch-bearing tattooed Mayans, who set huts on fire, club and knife many of the women and children to death, and imprison the men, including the film's wounded and bloodied young hero, Jaguar Paw (Richard Youngblood). Along with his fellow tribesmen, Jaguar Paw is shackled to a pole and forced to endure a long, sadistic march to the Mayans' city, where an even crueler fate awaits them.

"Apocalypto" begins with an intriguing quote from Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." This might lead you to expect an exploration of the erosion and extinction of the mighty Mayan empire. But this is not to be. The only aspects of the Mayans' culture that fire Gibson's imagination are the blood sacrifices held atop their imposing stone pyramids. The victims' blood is meant to appease the gods and end the drought and disease plaguing the land. The director spares us no detail of this exotically savage ritual, as our captive tribe members are painted blue and held down on a stone slab while, to the cheering mobs below, their beating hearts are carved out of their chests and held aloft (page 14). This is followed by swift decapitation, and the spectacle of severed heads tossed down the steps, followed by the headless carcasses. The director wants you to know he disapproves of this.

Jaguar Paw manages to escape the High Priest's dagger, but more dangers await as, pursued by soldiers, he tries to wend his way home, where his pregnant mate, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and son are trapped in the bottom of a pit. In its second, even gorier, half, "Apocalypto" becomes a straight-ahead chase movie, with more cliffhangers than "The Perils of Pauline." Some of this is quite thrilling. Gibson has formidable filmmaking skills: he knows how to direct a bravura action scene, and he and his co-writer, Farhad Safina, are inexhaustibly inventive in conjuring fresh ways for victims to meet their end. Dramatically, however, the relentless pileup of atrocities becomes self-defeating. At a certain point--was it the spear that went from the back of a running man's head through his mouth? The jaguar tearing another man's face to shreds? The snakes? The hornets? The hundreds of rotting corpses in the ravine?--you become inured. The harder "Apocalypto" works to shock and excite you, the less shocked and excited you become, until you may find yourself beset by the urge to giggle. Some may find the overkill exploitative, but there's nothing cynical about Gibson's obsession with blood and pain. The pathology is genuine.