THE MAYAN EVENT : Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’ [5/10]


"I wish I didn't have to believe in prophecy… but I do."
                Bishop Barbarrigo (Massimo Serato), Don't Look Now (1973)

When Mel Gibson revealed the nature of his third film as a director after Oscar-laden Braveheart and surprise worldwide box-office smash The Passion of the Christ,  many eyebrows were raised. Able to finance pretty much whatever project he fancied, why would Gibson choose to dramatise the dying days of central America's Mayan civilisation in the early 17th century? Now that the film itself is on release, the answer still isn't obvious: Apocalypto is primarily a watchably fast-paced, often-gory action thriller in which the fate of the Mayans is obliquely hinted at but not actually shown. Indeed, underneath the 'exotic' surfaces of a picture in which all the dialogue is in the 'Yucatec Maya' language, and in which the actors are unknown and/or non-professionals, Apocalypto turns out on closer examination to be little more than the umpteenth adaptation of Richard Connell's 1924 short story 'The Most Dangerous Game' – first filmed in 1932 in a production also known as The Hounds of Zaroff, and inspiration for a famously countless number of descendants on screens big and small.

Here the 'prey' is resourceful, athletic Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), whose idyllic life with his young son Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez) and pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) is abruptly shattered when their village is burned down by a band of warriors from the distant city. The warriors – led by stern Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and his gleefully cruel subordinate Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios) – kill several of the villagers (including Jaguar Paw's father), capture the village's able-bodied adults and lead them through the forest back to their city. Seven and her son survive by being lowered into a deep well-like cave by Jaguar Paw, but the latter is soon nabbed and hauled off by Zero Wolf's men. Arriving at the city, Jaguar Paw and his friends learn they're to be human sacrifices atop a vast pyramid, their hearts torn out of their chests before decapitation. Needless to say, our hero Jaguar Paw doesn't suffer this terrible fate: a very timely solar eclipse intervenes and he's miraculously spared – only to be handed back to the brutal 'care' of Zero Wolf and company. Narrowly managing to escape, Jaguar Paw into the forest with his enemies in hot pursuit – but he's now on home turf, where his intimate knowledge of the jungle-like terrain will prove a crucial advantage…

On one level, Apocalypto is a fable of "town" versus country: representatives of the former, despite their greater numbers and more 'advanced' technology, come messily unstuck when stumbling into the hazardous, primeval vastness of the jungle/forest – where Jaguar Paw's mastery of 'old ways' enables him to prevail. During the Edenic prologue, Jaguar Paw's community is shown as harmoniously co-existing with nature – and when, later, he extracts venom from a tree-frog, he does so without harming the creature, instead releasing it back into the wild. When we see Zero Wolf's city, however, it's a harsh, ugly world despoiled by an early version of 'heavy industry,' with slave-like workers employed in dire conditions – and the stark contrast between the two modes of existence is reminiscent of the similar dualism to be found at the heart of J R R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson's film adaptations of the books. Indeed, Zero Wolf's men are presented as uniformly craven, bestial and cruel – human cousins of Tolkein's Orcs. These are black-and-white universes in which there's little or no shading: characters are either sympathetic and heroic or black-hearted monsters.

As Apocalypto unfolds, however, we realise that Jaguar Paw's personal story – his "mission" to return home and save his family – isn't really the subject-matter of the film, nor are Gibson and his co-scriptwriter Farhad Safinia much bothered about exploring the issues of virility and manliness which dominate the first scene (in which Jaguar Paw and his fellow hunters pursue, and kill a tapir) and then surface from time to time. Jaguar Paw doesn't survive because he's fast, skilful or lucky: his adventures, we realise, have been foretold as part of a prophecy which is referred to at several key points in the narrative. He isn't a Messiah figure like the protagonist of Gibson's last film, nor does he lead or inspire an army like the hero of his first – he's a more passive figure, who happens to be the next sacrifice when the eclipse takes place, who happens to run with a jaguar, and so on. By fulfilling the prophecy's specific details, Jaguar Paw is the harbinger for the Mayan civilisation's demise – but he himself doesn't actually play any role in the process.

The film ends with the first sighting of the Spanish conquistadors – a scene which is visually reminiscent of Terrence Malick's The New World, thematically an echo of the conclusion of William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies – and the audience doesn't need a close-up of a religious personage with a cross on the end of his staff to know the imminent fate of the Mayans' complex pantheistic practices. Gibson, himself a famously vocal Catholic, seems to be suggesting that the Conquistadors' appearance on the scene is an unequivocally good thing: he lingers on the grisly sacrificial rites in much the same way as he forced audiences of The Passion of the Christ to witness the full bloody horror of Jesus's flagellation and crucifixion.

Whatever the Conquistadors might have done subsequently, Gibson seems to imply, it was surely preferable to the heart-ripping practices of the Mayans, or the brutal activities of Zero Wolf and his men. After rescuing Seven and Turtles Run from drowning – in a needlessly melodramatic and over-the-top scene (Seven actually gives birth mere seconds before Jaguar Paw shows up to save them all from a watery demise) – the family vanish off into the forest, presumably to start a new life far from both the bloodthirsty decadence of the city and its rulers, and equally distant from the continent's newly-arrived masters. This is a "new beginning" – which is how Gibson rather ingenuously prefers to translate film's title, although linguists insist Apocalypto is actually Greek for "I reveal."

To most ears, of course, "apocalypto" will have heavy connotations of doomsday – and the picture does start with a quote from Jesuit-educated American philosopher Will Durant ('A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.') A pity, then, that the film itself doesn't really explore what might have made the Mayan civilisation collapse – a process which had been taking place for quite some time before the Conquistadors showed up. We see evidence of a pox-like disease; realise that the 'Americans' won't be able to compete with the firepower of the Spanish; note that the royal family is cruel and decadent (the camera lingers on the fatness of a kid who's presumably some kind of princely heir). But these hardly seem like pointers to a society on the verge of imminent catastrophe – Gibson seems to give roughly equivalent weight to the mere fact of the solar eclipse, to the mere fact that Jaguar Paw fulfils the prophecy by being seen running with an actual jaguar.

The point isn't that the Mayans fell – it's that this one specific prophecy is shown to be utterly correct. And if that prophecy was so spot on, the unfortunate implication is that we should expect the world to end (and/or a new one to begin) on December 21st, 2012: the date as (famously) named on the complex, highly advanced Mayan calendars (which also incorporated eclipses, such as the one which features so prominently in both the film and its advertising.) This would seem to fit closely with the famous (if widely discredited) prophecy attributed to St Malachi, whose list of popes predicts we're just a single pontiff away from cosmic cataclysm. Like Don't Look Now's Bishop, Gibson (a vocal, fervent Catholic, prominently associated with some of the church's wilder fringes) is compelled to believe in prophecy, and it's surely no accident that he's made this particular film now, barely half a decade before the Mayans, St Malachi and, one may deduce, the director himself, all reckon the world – and, presumably, cinema – will come to a very sudden end.

Neil Young
7th January, 2007

APOCALYPTO : [5/10] : USA 2006 : Mel GIBSON : 138 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Gate complex, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 5th January 2007 – public show (complimentary ticket – with thanks to Adam Welsh)