A group of young Mayan men hunt a wild boar in the jungle and kill it. They rip out its organs and make one of the men eat the testicles of the beast. They are enjoying themselves when one of them, later to be called Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), senses movement in the trees. A short time later a young man from another tribe emerges from the foliage and asks for safe-passage for his villagers who are moving to a new location to begin a new life. It is about the year 1519 AD.
That night, as Jaguar Paw sleeps beside his pregnant wife and young son, he dreams of the young man; he looks as if he has been brutally beaten and yells at Jaguar Paw to flee. Jaguar Paw awakens and listens to the wind. Soon enough a different group of Mayan men attack the village. Jaguar Paw hides his wife and son in a dry well. When he returns to help the other villagers, he is captured with those who are not brained, raped, or slain.
The captives are bound together and led to a major Mayan urban center. The women are sold as slaves and the men are taken to the top of the temple to be sacrificed to appease the gods who have visited a plague on the corn crop. Jaguar Paw is saved when there is a solar eclipse. Nonetheless, the rest of the captives will be made sport of and killed.
The rest of the 138 minute film is consumed with the injured Jaguar Paw running through the jungle, chased by the father of a man Jaguar Paw killed as he fled.
Apocalypto means “new beginnings” as Mel Gibson has said in interviews about the film. The irony of this is that almost at the very end Jaguar Paw arrives at a beach, with two surviving pursuers, to see three Spanish ships, complete with landing vessel filled with conquistadores and a Franciscan friar holding a cross. Although this priest only acted as a chaplain to the soldiers, and the first twelve Franciscan missionaries would arrive about five years later in June, 1524, this distant meeting of the Spanish and the Mayans did signal a new beginning, the conquest of Mexico and neighboring areas and civilizations, the deaths of uncountable people, the theft of gold, slavery, etc. (It is estimated that the amount of gold taken from Peru underpinned the economy of Europe for 300 years.)
According to Eduardo Chavez, author of “Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Juan Diego: the Historical Evidence” (2006; Rowman and Littlefield), the Franciscan missionaries did destroy the Mayan temples and shrines in their paternalistic concern about the worship of idols, but the Spanish military and settlers were treating the people with cruelty. Things were so bad that in 1529 Friar Juan de Zumarraga (later to become the first bishop of Mexico) wrote to King Carlos of Spain that the Spanish were enslaving the Indigenous people to serve them on their new ranches, diverting water from the villages, and forcing the people to work in the mines. In 1532, Mary appeared to the Christian neophyte, Juan Diego. Unlike other areas conquered by the Spanish, Msgr. Chavez told a group of us who visited the Basilica of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in October, 2006, for the launch of a major motion picture celebrating the 475th anniversary of Mary’s apparitions to St. Juan Diego, that the Franciscans did not force conversions in Mexico (as was done by missionaries in league with Conquistadores in other parts of the lands conquored by Spain); the people were led to Christianity by the story of the miraculous image of Our Lady on Juan Diego’s tilma. (The film is now playing in many cities in the US: GUADALUPE, see www.guadalupelapelicla.com; see my review below)
I mention this because it is difficult for me to take in the brutality and violence of Apocalypto and it’s seemingly “new day” message coinciding with the arrival of the Conquistadores.Or is this irony the tragic point?
I liked Rudy Youngblood very much; we can only hope that his recompense is commensurate for acting this demanding and grueling role.
The production qualities of the film are excellent, as we have come to expect from Mel Gibson – except that it seemed like they spliced in video in some places. The subtitles were not a problem for me at all, and helped create the historic context of the film. But there were also some conventions from Mel’s other violence-packed films with a central figure willing to give his life for others or save his family (Braveheart, The Patriot, The Passion of the Christ): the vicious revenge killings or over-kill, the horror elements (the eyeballs rolling back in people’s heads, the dwarf-baby taunting the captives, the insects, the cosmos out-of-sync with nature – and fear); and the blue body paint (which may be a cultural coincidence).
Going the distance is one of the themes of the Rocky Balboa film coming out soon. Let there be no mistake about it: these films are about testosterone; in Rocky Balboa, however, the filmmakers blend it better with the characters and story. Jaguar Paw certainly did go the distance, with a strong, brave heart. The appeal to the male audience, therefore, for both films, is extra obvious but the first fifteen or so minutes of Apocalypto was a guy- joke fest.
My question is: how does the same film played out in different places and eras take us, as the human family, anywhere new or different? Are there different stories out there? How do these kinds of films make us care more about our neighbor, both near and far? The main characters may go the distance, and are heroic, but at what cost to the – audience? Apocalypto is another ring-side seat at an execution – many of them – by the good guys and the bad guys.
There is a transcendent level to Apocalypto; for example, when Jaguar Paws must cross a river and decides to jump into the falls instead, he comes out without any wounds; he is healed. There are other instances where a sense of a guiding providence is evident.
Yet for all its high level of film craft, and as much as I liked Jaguar Paw (and a few of the other characters such as Jaguar Paw’s infertile friend and his mother-in-law), I think Mel’s films cry out for the gift of subtlety. The audience knows how to read films; we get brutality and torture the first time; we don’t need protracted sequences to get the message. One head bouncing down the temple steps would have been enough. I would have asked for my money back if I were not a film reviewer and had to stay for the whole thing.
So, what’s next, Mel? Are you going to surprise us?