Maya culpa

Brace your­self and go and see Apoca­lypto.

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - BY FRIK ELS frike@fin­week.co.za

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.

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