Brace yourself and go and see Apocalypto.
IT SEEMS THAT THE Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences struggled just as much to decide what to make of Apocalypto as I did (and I think most audiences will). That’s why the Oscar people gave Apocalypto, written and directed by Mel Gibson, three lowly Oscar nominations: best make-up, sound editing and sound mixing.
They want to reward the film, but considering it for its art rather than its science would make them appear as far from the mainstream as Gibson is. Among many idiosyncrasies, he belongs to an obscure ultra-orthodox Catholic sect, has a wellpublicised love for the bottle and a personal fortune of at least $600m, thanks to the many Christians worldwide.
How can the Academy (a slightly sinister organisation that can make you a fortune or wreck your life) praise a film that features non-professional actors speaking Yucatec and explores a subject – the last days of the Mayan civilisation of Mesoamerica in the 15th Century – that isn’t exactly high on movie audiences’ list of interests. And how do you explain a work that has as its cinematic high point decapitated human bodies and heads painted blue rolling down the steps of a ziggurat to the cheers of thousands?
I was highly sceptical about Apocalypto when I first heard its subject matter, but that scene is as visually stunning and horrifyingly compelling as the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which set a standard for the depiction of the fury of battle that hasn’t been surpassed since. (Not that I hope aspiring directors will try to better Gibson’s portrayal of human sacrifice.)
Apocalypto ’s hero is Jaguar Paw, the young son of the chief of a small tribe that live a hunter-gatherer life deep in the jungle. Their idyllic existence is shattered when they’re attacked and taken prisoner, eventually to be sacrificed in Mayan City to appease the Sun God who’s brought famine and pestilence to the realm. It’s a simple enough story, a coming of age action adventure movie if you will, with enough spilled blood and guts to make 10 Bravehearts.
But don’t let that put you off. Braveheart, which did earn Gibson best director and best film Oscars, is sentimental and unimaginative next to Apocalypto. The violence in The Passion of the Christ was so relentless that it became boring to watch and had the exact opposite effect than was intended. Despite all the cruelty and brutality on display, the violence in Apocalypto isn’t gratuitous.
Apocalypto is a beautiful, thrilling and strangely hypnotic film. Even at two hours and 20 minutes, and with the final third of the film a drawn-out chase through the jungle, Apocalypto doesn’t flounder. And just for good measure it throws in a surprise ending. None of the recent historical epics such as Alexander, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven and others come close to its intensity and authentic feel (historical accuracy aside).
You just have to consider the well-worn themes of this year’s list of the top Oscar hopefuls – dysfunctional families, suburban angst, royalty, popular music and the mafia – to agree that Apocalypto, if nothing else, is the most original film of the year.
I for one can’t wait to see what Gibson will produce next. I’m hoping for something set in this millennium or, better still, the next.
Apocalypto not mainstream.