A review of “Apocalypto” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: ****

Rating: R for extreme violence, bloodshed and nudity

Run Time: 2 hours, 16 minutes. In Mayan Yucatec with English subtitles



Mel Gibson combines his infamously twisted sensibilities and mammoth talents to create a bold and visionary telling of the tragic downfall of the Mayan civilization.

“Passion of the Christ” meets “The Naked Prey” in this ambitious morality tale of violence and greed and a culture on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The film begins by establishing the Mayans as fun-loving, intimate folk with a deep sense of family and innate spiritual beliefs. Soon enough their idyll is shattered by a vicious attack at the hands of the Holcane Warriors, ruthless predators who torch their village, rape their women and take the men captive.

The Mayans, whose descriptive monikers (Cocoa Leaf, Curl Lip and Flint Sky, etc.) reflect their colorful identities, gather strength from chaos thanks to the fervor of their beliefs. Leading the pack is charismatic tribesman Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) whose father is brutally murdered before his eyes and who manages to conceal his pregnant wife and young son before setting off on his tortuous death march.

Their destination is a Mayan city of great splendor where gaily painted warriors rub shoulders with loud-mouthed slave traders and tattooed shanty-folk. Mayan pyramids are being erected stone by stone as grisly human sacrifices are made appease the Gods and ostensibly put a stop to the scourge of famine, plague and rot that’s destroying an entire society.

Corrupt rulers govern with an iron fist and miss nary a beat in eviscerating and maiming in the name of an unforgiving deity. Its here that Gibson’s gifts are most evident; his visualization so audacious that it positively smolders with cinematic fever and the putrid stench of civilized decay.

At this juncture “Apocalypto” segues into an intense manhunt, an epic pursuit fraught with unbearable tension and the cunning art of the stalk. It’s an intrepid action-adventure, a heady adrenaline rush that never loosens its grip on a palpable dread that accelerates with blistering force.

Performances are remarkably on-point considering the assemblage of indigenous unknowns and a mood established primarily through facial expression and body language. And what faces; chiseled, proud and infinitely expressive.

Youngblood is a daunting hero, all sinew and primal heat with a sultry-sweet sensitivity. The Holcane are a different story; monsters of mindless fury with an insatiable thirst for the kill. Magnificently be-boned Raoul Trujillo will inspire nightmares long after the lights have come up.

Underscoring all is the nuance of despair. And Gibson’s complex politics and not-so-subtle allusions to contemporary policy and rage, far too open to inevitable negative interpretations. The violence is outrageously gory but never gratuitous, perfectly in keeping with the anguish of a disintegrating civilization and the survival of the fittest.

Vivid, provocative and utterly breathtaking.