Saturday, February 25, 2012

Apocalypto (2006)

I don't get out to movies much, because most of them aren't worth watching, and I do not generally go out of my way to catch Mel Gibson's efforts.  Partly it is because he is an embarrassment as a Christian.  I get the impression that he grew up in a pretty fiercely anti-Semitic home, and he managed to keep it pretty shut up inside until the incident where he was arrested for DUI.  (Alcohol unleashes a lot of interior demons.)  The whole tragic ending of his marriage shows that the in contest between following Jesus and being of Hollyweird, Hollyweird seems to win.

I confess Mel Gibson has always frustrated me as a film maker.  Even when the films he makes are evocative and entertaining (such as The Patriot and Braveheart), they are so historically in error that it leaves me quite upset.  The Patriot could have been a spectacular film if it had followed the facts of Francis Marion's exploits more accurately.  Indeed, it could have been historically accurate and more interesting of a film, by examining the weird situation of slave owners who were demanding liberty.

Apocalytpo is another one of those frustrations.  If you ignore the historical accuracy problems (and they are severe), it is one of the most astonishing pieces of filmmaking that I have seen in a very long time.  It is especially impressive considering that there is not a recognizable star in the entire film, and all the dialog is in Yucatec Maya, with subtitles.  Sounds boring, doesn't it?  And you would be utterly wrong.  The opening sequences of the film show us a group of Mayan villagers behaving like...people.  One of the hunters is having some trouble getting his wife pregnant, and the other hunters are playing various pranks that make fun of this.

Once the ugliness starts, it is a story of enslavement, survival, and escape.  I found myself thinking of Cornell Wilde's classic The Naked Prey (1966).  And like all Mel Gibson movies, it is violent, and there is nothing cleaned up about the violence.  There is a love story as well--as Jaguar Paw seeks to return to and save his wife and son.  It has an astonishing score by James Horner.  (Fortunately, we were not forced to listen to Celine Dion singing in Maya, "My heart will be ripped out of my chest.")

Yet the historical accuracy problems with the film are a major problem.  Yes, the Mayans did human sacrifice. But this film puts rituals and aspects of Aztec human sacrifice into a Mayan setting, where they are historically inaccurate.  The Maya had abandoned their cities centuries before the Spanish arrived.  Mayan human sacrifice tended towards drowning virgins, and was not on the incomprehensible scale of the Aztecs.  This script, with just a bit of work, could have been accurately written about the Aztecs, a group that deserves bad press, but does not get it.

Think of Apocalypto as the anti-Avatar.  Where Avatar is a thinly disguised tale of the abuse of the Native Americans (with none of the inconvenient details left in), Apocalypto is a tale that, by moving it a few hundred miles west, could have done a fine job of portraying Aztec culture, and why the Spanish (and all the neighboring tribes, who were tired of being Aztec carry-out) felt no compunction about destroying that culture.  Heck, if I showed up in 1519 Tenochtitlan, I would have been looking for a nuclear weapon to use.