Running Time: 137 mins.
Rated: Rated MA 15+
With a name like Apocalypto and a director like Mel Gibson, this film could be about anything. As it is, it is an immersion of the audience in the last, dying days of the Mayan civilisation.
The film itself offers no background explanation as to the Mayans and their history. Obviously, much of the history is speculation, information coming from archaeology and conclusions drawn from what remains of a civilisation which, except for its buildings and ruins, is lost.
The film opens with a quotation from scholar Will Durant stating that dying civilisations decay from within before they are destroyed from outside. Apocalypto presents a society of hunters who are menaced by lethal warriors who plunder, rape and kill (with quite some visual impact) and who enslave their victims so that they can be sold in markets to an effete nobility or can be slaughtered as human sacrifices (quartered and their hearts cut out - memories of Braveheart - and then beheaded at the top of the high temple staircase so that their heads can roll and bounce down to the bloodthirsty crowds and then be impaled). Gibson evokes the bread and circus atmosphere of the Roman arenas as well as the lance and arrow gladiatorial pursuits of victims by the temple guards.
Gibson has decided to tell the story of a hero, a hero who is a victim, a hero who has to endure almost unendurable torture and suffering. This means that Apocalypto is definitely a Mel Gibson films in terms of subject and treatment and the visual, visceral presentation of pain. William Wallace and his execution, Jesus and his passion and death, were not exceptions to Gibson's concerns.
We can see now how Mel Gibson's sensibilities are strong, male, suffering-oriented, focused on heroic endurance with some kind of hope that the heritage is redemption and freedom.
The language of the film is Yucatec. Gibson's films contribute to a mainstream's acceptance of sub-titles.
The first part of Apocalypto shows the peaceful and happy hunting villagers. It opens with a chase and a division of the meats - interrupted by an ominous appearance of some displaced tribes people. However, there is camaraderie, respect for elders, strong leadership and earthy jokes about sex and families.
Then comes the attack in all its brutality, massacre and the enslavement of the warriors, their trek through forest, river and cliffs to the centre of 'civilisation' with its temples, priests, sacrifices and atmosphere of superstition and appeasement of the Gods.
In the tradition of Run of the Arrow, The Naked Prey or A Man Called Horse, the Mayan leader, Jaguar Paws (Rudy Youngblood) endures extraordinary pain and danger to outrun his pursuers and rescue his pregnant wife and child.
And, there coming to the shore, are the ships of the conquistadors and their friar chaplains. The era of the Mayans is over.
This is not a particularly appealing film. Rather, it is one that can be admired on a storytelling and technical bravura level - an example of cinematic ethnography.
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.