'Apocalypto' — Painful hearts of darkness

Despite the infamous tirade that sullied Mel Gibson’s reputation, there is poetry in the man — simple, unsophisticated poetry, but the kind that lends his stories an exceptional depth of passion and conviction. In “Apocalypto,” his vision is no less grand than it was in “Passion of the Christ,” and just as bloody.

In “Passion,” as in “Braveheart” before it, he presented submission to torture as the ultimate spiritual sacrifice. Here, he uses extreme violence to illustrate one man’s desperate devotion to his family, and to explain how the once-mighty Mayans undermined their own empire through arrogant, soulless brutality.

It’s fascinating, but how could it not be? Gibson has emerged as a fiercely independent filmmaker who depicts human suffering at its most primal, focusing on physical savagery and never turning away. “Apocalypto,” like “Passion of the Christ,” is a wounding experience, soaked in so much blood that it seems, at times, almost cartoonish. Gibson knows no subtlety. He gets his point across with a sledgehammer, and it hurts.

Set in Central America at the turn of the 16th century, the movie begins auspiciously enough, as Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and his playful crew of hunters scour the forest for game. They encounter a tribe from another village, whose leader says they are merely passing through, in search of a new home. Jaguar Paw bids them a safe journey, but senses trouble. These people are frightened and battered, running from some unknown evil. But what?

The next morning, he finds out. At dawn, a war party descends on his village, laying waste to everything in its path and taking Jaguar Paw hostage — but not before he can hide his pregnant wife and son. Along with the tribesmen who survive the ambush, he is dragged to an altar of ritual sacrifice, where he narrowly avoids decapitation. Soon after, he escapes, and “Apocalypto” settles into a bruising, unrelenting and ultimately exhausting chase, as Jaguar Paw becomes the quarry of an elaborately staged manhunt.

Those hoping for a history lesson should look elsewhere. Gibson pays brief, superficial homage to the bloodier aspects of Mayan culture, offering glimpses of the decadent temples where lavishly adorned soothsayers carve up their victims, but nothing more. The implication is clear: The empire, lorded over by demonic heathens, is rotting from within, leaving it ripe for collapse and conquest. To hammer the point home, Gibson opens the film by quoting historian Will

Durant’s assertion that great civilizations can only destroy themselves.

It’s an intriguing theory, one that Gibson might have explored at greater length if “Apocalypto” were more securely grounded in history. But this is a revenge fantasy with all the dramatic sensibilities of a “Die Hard” sequel. Jaguar Paw’s quest to be reunited with his family is breathlessly paced, but so packed with gratuitous hazards that it reaches the point of comic-book overkill.

Gibson is a gifted storyteller, but he lacks self-restraint. In “Apocalypto,” he has all the makings of a great movie — big ideas, powerful imagery and, in the end, satisfying catharsis — but he allows his vision to spiral out of control.

Credits

Apocalypto **½

Starring Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez

Written by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia

Directed by Mel Gibson

Rated R

Running time 2 hours, 17 minutes

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