New World Ardor

Pure and primal, "Apocalypto" deserves attention beyond Mel Gibson.

You won’t read much about “Apocalypto” that isn’t first and foremost about Mel Gibson. It is, perhaps, unavoidable; the film’s director is the drunken, ranting, reputation-immolating elephant in the room. Frames of the film will be dissected for what they will tell us about Gibson’s now-infamous worldview. We’ll look at his second consecutive film made in a largely unknown language (following “The Passion of the Christ”) and conclude that it’s because employing the English language only seems to get Gibson in trouble.

If Gibson were not such a polarizing figure, we probably wouldn’t be paying much attention to a subtitled drama without a single familiar actor — oh, and one that happens to take place 500 years ago. But without Gibson’s baggage, it might also be easier to recognize what a primally effective piece of filmmaking “Apocalypto” turned out to be. You may not understand the language of Yucatec, but it’s hard not to understand Gibson’s language of pure, visual cinema.

In pre-Columbian America, “Apocalypto” begins with a village and a young hunter named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). The things he values are simple: his family, including his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and the bonds of his village. But that simplicity is shattered when the village is raided by Holcane warriors, led by the fierce Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo). Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and young son in a deep pit, but he is taken prisoner, along with several fellow villagers, to a Mayan city. The lucky ones will be sold as slaves; others may find themselves sacrificed to the gods.

For a while, “Apocalypto” is almost clumsily obvious in its devotion to Screenwriting 101 first-act structure. A kinetically staged opening tapir hunt gives way to everyday village life that will soon be obliterated. We see Jaguar Paw in all his domestic happiness so that his later separation from the family will resonate. And the comic relief — including broad gags at the expense of Jaguar Paw’s friend Blunted (Jonathan Brewer) and the revelation that “meddling mother-in-law” humor transcends time and culture — allows for a connection with a people not too unlike us.

But these tried-and-true methods — employed by Gibson and co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia — do exactly what they set out to do. Once the fundamentals of our protagonist’s plight are established, Gibson sets the quest in motion and rarely lets it rest. At over two hours, “Apocalypto” is a minor masterpiece of pacing, the propulsive momentum of the set pieces keeping Jaguar Paw’s survival imperative always at the forefront. The occasional cuts back to Seven and her son in the pit — with their lives threatened by lack of food, the possibility of flood or even a stray wombat — only heighten the urgency. There’s also a truly terrific villain in Jaguar Paw’s cruel, taunting antagonist Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena), the kind of bad guy who elevates any action film. In the final hour of the film, few words are spoken that even require subtitles — because the storytelling is so clear and stripped-down.

The relative silence also allows you to appreciate what Gibson accomplishes on the level of sheer spectacle. The Mayan city comes to life as a place not just alien to us, but alien even to Jaguar Paw and his comrades. Yet in microcosm, we see the entire culture: slaves at work, ladies of leisure in their elaborate hairstyles, religious ceremonies, vendors in a vibrant marketplace. If anything was clear from “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ,” it’s that Gibson understands how to re-create a society with a sense of epic scope. In that way, his filmmaking approach has remained consistent.

It remains consistent in other ways, too, not all of them for the better. Gibson is still obsessed with the rending of flesh, and here he portrays animal attacks, human sacrifices and unique medical practices without concern for putting his audience off its lunch. And he still can’t resist employing the most dramatic slow motion possible when tragedy strikes. Yet in this film he’s more clear-eyed about creating a narrative than he was when dealing with such tricky subject matter as the Crucifixion, and he even adds a sense of unexpected tragedy to the idea that this society will soon be overwhelmed by the Christian Spaniards. “Apocalypto” is the kind of adventure that any kind of moviegoer could find gripping — because the people on the screen ultimately matter more than the guy behind the camera. (R) 135 min. *** S

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