Saturday, January 13, 2007

N&N Review: Apocalypto


So I finally got around to seeing Gibson's latest display of viscera-obsession, Apocalypto. Allow me a less-than-controversial assertion: Mel is quite mad. And if not 'mad', certainly something approaching it. A profoundly religious Catholic obsessed with nightmarish displays of gore and human horror that seem lifted from the imagination of Bosch. A frequent drunkard, a profane slanderer, and a family man with seven children. He seems destined to be the posthumous subject of many an inquisitive and unflattering biography.

And if Hollywood had so many as ten other filmmakers as passionate, skilled and fearless, the entertainment industry might be very different indeed.

Apocalypto starts on an immediately disquieting note with the visual tenor Gibson establishes. The film is shot with digital cameras, which despite it's meticulously choreographed visual beauty, gives the film the raw immediacy of a nature special or documentary. In his push for realism, Gibson eschews the dreamy, distanced, 24-frames per second look of cellulite, adding an unwelcomed dimension of reality to what's on screen. The effect is unsettling, but doesn't distract for long.

Apocalypto's pace is brisk. Opening with a tribal hunt of a tapir, during which some good-natured male bonding occurs over the divvying-up of choice cuts. More than displays of simple machismo, Mel uses the opening scenes to establish the fraternal bond of the tribe's men. They hunt together, tease one another like locker-room pals and give occasionally misleading advice on coping with infertility and nagging in-laws.


The tribal serenity, such as it is, is shattered however by a marauding group of warriors dispatched from a nearby city. Capturing the stronger men, raping the women, slashing and burning the land. The protag, a village inhabitant named Jaguar Paw, is captured after witnessing the murder of his father who implores him with his last words, to fear nothing. And in an earlier scene, instills him with respect for the value of community, family, inherited knowledge, and heritage in a sparsely written, and memorable scene that also contains the film's only repeated dialogue.

Jaguar Paw and his comrades are consequently marched to the Mayan city. Where plagued by drought and disease and teetering on collapse, the ruling political class is engaged in its most ancient habitual rites: engaging in florid rhetoric on national destiny while sacrificing citizens. When the sacrifice ends, the survivors are simply hunted for sport. Jaguar Paw fortuitously escapes, killing the son of a military official in the process which launches the third act, a chase that lasts all the way back to his home village with a cadre of warriors in hot pursuit. Throughout the chase, Jaguar Paw embraces the role of defender of his family, land, and heritage in a series of breathless set peices. Donning a thick camouflage of mud, and applying his inventiveness in taking the hunt to his pursuers with a variety of organic weapons.

Though it may look like a deceptively simple surival/chase picture, (and a thrilling one at that) Apocalypto is at bottom about the shared values of individuals, families, and communities coming into conflict with the demands, interests and values of nations. Which by their nature, must be more devoted to the abstractions of leaders and to the service of a carefully mysticized national identity. Abstractions that place little value on individual children, husbands and wives, friends, and communities, the sanctity of land and property, and the right of families and offspring to pass on their property, culture, and heritage.

Apocalypto is a gorgeous, horrifying, and wildly passionate experience. Perhaps it has proved too alienating for mainstream auds, but absolutely requires viewing on the big screen. One of the year's best.

5/5






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