December 6-12, 2006

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Before the fall: An ancient civilization stands on the brink of disaster in 'Apocalypto.'


Mad Mel indulges his bloodlust in the jungles of 'Apocalypto' Mesoamerica

By Richard von Busack

HAVING PROVED himself the most successful gorehound in cinema history, Mel Gibson turns his attention to Mexico on the eve of the Conquest. Apocalypto begins with rude joking after a grisly tapir hunt as a tribe chases a pig into a deathtrap. The hunters josh the one member who hasn't fathered a child yet, giving him the pig balls to eat. A medicine man further pranks the unfortunate with a jungle leaf that he is supposed to rub on his genitals—more hilarity ensues when it turns out to burn. During the hunt, the natives encounter a retreating tribe of strangers, escaping from some nameless horror. They decide that the morning after the feasting is the best time for the elders to talk about it.

Morning is too late. By dawn, a raiding party arrives to enslave the men and rape the women. Our hero, the chief's son, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), is the only one without facial piercings, so we can tell he's the hero. He opposes the sadistic assistant villain, who really has a case of tackle-box face. So does the war-party's chief, who is bedecked with bones like the Predator in the science-fiction movies.

Gross as it is, Apocalypto has thrust. Gibson has a savage vision of Mayan society as a conveyor belt of death. The prisoners arrive at the diseased outskirts of the city, where there are moaning beggars and bloody-mouthed lime burners, white with powder, grinding mortar for the pyramids. The new arrivals are painted a fetching shade of blue and then hustled up a ramp to the top of the pyramid. There, gorgeously attired, degenerate priests, jeweled with turquoise and jade, cut out their victims' hearts and bounce their severed heads down the steps. It doesn't look anything like the mural on the side of an East Los Angeles panel van, let's put it that way.

Truth to tell, the conquistadors figured out a more efficient way to tear the hearts out of their subjects, using a book instead of a dagger. I don't know if Gibson's interest in pre-Columbian history went beyond the idea of the Mayans as bloodthirsty fiends who needed to be swept away. What else can you make of the Will Durant quote about how a society must collapse from within before it can be conquered? Apocalypto does have its little message to our fellow citizens, when a blood-covered Aztec priest claims, "We are a people of destiny" in tones similar to any beltway politician of today.

Jaguar Paw out-Tarzans Tarzan when he escapes; the long chase is interrupted with the ordeal of Jaguar Paw's nine-months-pregnant wife and his young son waiting for him, trapped in a cavern. Then, Apocalypto loses its intensity. One has to forgive the old providential solar eclipse bit, but not in the same movie where the single telltale slo-mo drop of blood gives away a hiding place. Gibson's obsession with pain, punishment and revenge doesn't quit: this is the film for which the phrase "It is what it is" was invented. Still, Apocalypto's nonstop violence is, more than anything, an artistic stance. If Gibson really believed in this dog-eat-dog world, he wouldn't have let the sheriffs take him so easily.

Movie Times Apocalypto (R; 137 min.), directed by Mel Gibson, written by Gibson and Farhad Safinia, photographed by Dean Semler and starring Rudy Youngblood, opens Dec. 8.

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