Recent Historical Films

 

 

Apocalypto (Mel Gibson, 2006)
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

Apocalypto: Action drama. Starring Rudy Youngblood, Morris Birdyellowhead and Dalia Hernandez. Directed by Mel Gibson. (R. 135 minutes. In Mayan with English subtitles.

 

 

Synopsis

As the foundation of the Mayan civilization begins to crumble, one man's previously idyllic existence is forever changed when he is chosen as a sacrifice needed to appease the gods in director Mel Gibson's mythic, end-times adventure. The Mayan kingdom is at the absolute height of opulence and power, but leaders are convinced that unless more temples are constructed and more human sacrifices made, the crops, and ultimately the people, will suffer. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is a peaceful hunter from a remote forest tribe whose life is about to be changed forever. When Jaguar Paw's village is raided and he is prepared as a sacrifice that the Mayan deities have demanded, the brave young hunter is forced to navigate a horrific new world of fear and oppression.

Fearlessly determined to escape his captors and save his family from a harrowing demise, Jaguar Paw prepares to risk it all in one final, desperate attempt to preserve his dying way of life. However, few who have seen the sacrificial alter of the Mayans have managed to live to see another day. Now, in order to rescue his pregnant wife and young son, Jaguar Paw will have to elude the most powerful warriors of the Mayan kingdom while using his vast knowledge of the forest to turn the tables on those who would rather see him dead than set free. Inspired by such ancient Mayan texts as the Popul Vuh, Apocalypto marks a comprehensive collaboration between director Gibson, Cambridge-educated screenwriter Farhad Safinia, and world-renowned archeologist and Mayan culture expert Dr. Richard D. Hansen -- whose services as a special consultant on the film lent the production an unprecedented degree of historical accuracy. 

 

From the Director

"I'd been wanting to do a chase movie forever; that's how it started, just as a chase. [...] And that's the really fascinating thing about the culture: you have this incredibly sophisticated civilization, on one hand, and then there are such acts of barbarism in there. They knew about the stars and the constellations... and about building; they had libraries and books and a language and they were cultured. They were like the Greeks, but they also had this other thing with the human sacrifice, which I think came actually from the north; it traveled from the Aztecs. [...] I'm hoping that it fulfills on a number of levels, that it's not just a great action picture. It's got a lot of levels to it that mean something. I tried to have it be multi-strata in the stories it was telling and the meanings you could extract from them. But if you didn't want to extract those meanings, you could always watch a damn good foot-chase." (By Mel Gibson).

 

Quotes on the Film

"'Over-the-top violence mars a brilliant ethnographic thriller of ancient times." (Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter).

"[Gibson] has learned how to tell a tale, and raise a pulse in the telling. You have to admire that basic gift, uncommon as it is in Hollywood these days, though equally you have to ask what obsessions goad it on" (Anthony Lane, New Yorker).

"'With a ferocity that is often as difficult to take as it is fascinating to watch, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto comes crashing across 500 years of history with such immediacy that it feels as if this haunting, fierce, sadistic movie will never leave you." (Bruce Newman, San Jose Mercury News).

"There's no denying Gibson's talent behind the camera. He knows what he's doing, and doit it with tremendous skill and conviction." (Steve Murray, Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

 

 

Press Clippings

 

By Peter Travers

Here's a thought: instead of rehashing Mel Gibson's Jew-bashing rants when L.A. cops got him on a DUI in July, let's stick to his movie. Apocalypto brings out what's unique and gripping in Gibson as a director. It's pure adrenaline — a tremendously exciting chase movie, shot in Mexico, that just happens to be set in ancient Maya with dialogue spoken in Yucatec Maya, with English subtitles. Heck, you lived through Latin and Aramaic in Gibson'sPassion of the Christ, so don't be a wussy. Actually, you'd better not be gore-shy, becauseApocalypto is one brutal and bloody ride.

The plot, cooked up by Gibson and Farhad Safinia, focuses on Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a braveheart if ever there was one. Even women and children are killed when his village is attacked by another tribe. After hiding his pregnant wife and young son in a cave, Jaguar goes on the run experiencing adventures that would give Indiana Jones the screaming meemies. The movie flies by fast enough to cause whiplash. Youngblood, 25, is a Comanche and Cree Indian from Texas, and he holds the screen every treacherous inch of the way, suffering penitential hardships from spears, snakes and tribal rulers intent on removing his heart while it's still beating.

This being Gibson, there's more to the film than the rush. It's impossible not to see parallels to our own cultured civilization, one that knowingly destroys its environment and sends troops to Iraq as human sacrifices. Gibson has made a film of blunt provocation and bruising beauty — it's breathtaking to watch a jaguar racing in the jungle alongside the man who is named after the beast. Say what you will about Gibson, he's a filmmaker right down to his nerve endings.

(Rolling Stone, November 21, 2006)

 

 

By Todd McCarthy

Mel Gibson is always good for a surprise, and his latest is that "Apocalypto" is a remarkable film. Set in the waning days of the Mayan civilization, the picture provides a trip to a place one's never been before, offering hitherto unseen sights of exceptional vividness and power. In the wake of its director's recent outburst and unwanted publicity, commercial prospects remain anyone's guess, and those looking for a reason not to attend will undoubtedly find one, be it Gibson's tirade, the gore, the subtitles or outre subject matter. But blood-and-guts action audiences should eat this up, Gibson is courting Latinos, eco-political types will like the message and at least part of the massive "The Passion of the Christ" crowd should be curious, so strong biz is possible if these distinct constituencies are roused.

Despite the subject's inherent spectacle, conflict and societal interest, Central America's pre-Columbian history has scarcely been touched by filmmakers; Hollywood's only venture into the territory was the little-remembered 1963 quasi-epic "Kings of the Sun," with Yul Brynner and George Chakiris.

Cast largely with indigenous nonpros speaking the prevailing surviving dialect of the Mesoamericans, "Apocalypto" is exotic, wild, ferocious, teeming with startling incident and brutal violence.

With co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia, Gibson has cooked up a scenario that is fundamentally a survival and chase film, with a final act that trades on the human hunt motif of "The Most Dangerous Game" and Cornel Wilde's "The Naked Prey."

But both the grand conception of a civilization in decline and the extraordinary detail with which the society is presented make the picture much more than that, to the extent that it startlingly echoes another portent-laden year-end release, Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men;" one film is set in the past, the other in the near-future, one was made in Mexico by a Yank-Aussie, the other in Britain by a Mexican, but both are contemporaneously resonant stories of pursuit through poisoned, dangerous lands on the brink.

Starting at a run and seldom stopping for a breather, pic opens on an animal hunt that occasions a graphically gross two-prong practical joke that instantly humanizes the characters. It establishes the relaxed, intimate, sensual nature of family-oriented life in a small jungle settlement occupied by the fearsome-looking but free-spirited protags. Chief among them is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), an athletic young man who has long flowing locks, sports tattoos, designed body scars, large ear adornments and a sort of chin plug, and wears nothing but a well-fitted loin cloth. His teeth are not quite as bad as those of his pals, which are very bad indeed.

Paradise comes to an abrupt end a half-hour in with the dawn attack of marauders who pillage with ruthless expertise. These guys are more heavily decorated than the locals, with bones through their noses and elsewhere. Two members of what the press notes identify as Holcane warriors stand out: the leader, Zero Wolf (the supremely imposing Raoul Trujillo), whose left arm and head are festooned with human and animal jaws, and the sadistic Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios, fantastically hateful), who, restrained from killing Jaguar Paw by Zero Wolf, instead murders the captive's father in front of him, launching an antagonism that runs through the picture. Both of these heavies could stay in costume and stride straight into another "Mad Max" film.

With his surviving fellow villagers, Jaguar Paw is bound and marched off through the jungle, but not before he's secreted his very pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and little son (Carlos Emilio Baez) in a deep pit, promising, rather against the odds, to return.

The greatest mystery surrounding the Mayan civilization is why it collapsed so suddenly. Gibson adroitly lines his film with hints of the numerous possible causes, including famine, disease, drought, increased warfare, a corrupt ruling class and general societal breakdown. A bedraggled group of emaciated natives is glimpsed moving through the forest early on, and the prisoners later pass by a haunted girl with "the sickness" who warns about the coming "blackness of day."

The long central section of "Apocalypto" is simply great epic cinema, with generous dollops of chilling horror and grisly human sacrifice. Production designer Tom Sanders makes a huge contribution to the captives' gradual entry into the great and chaotic Maya City. Each neighborhood is brilliantly detailed, from the derelict outlying shantytown to the industrial and more prosperous commercial districts, the slave market where the women are sold off and, finally, the staggering central plaza, where the first thing seen is a freshly detached human head being bounced down the long steps of a towering pyramid toward a frenzied crowd below.

Only then does it dawn on the shackled prisoners what's in store for them. At the summit preside dissolute royals as well as a high priest who, time and again, plunges a knife into a man's belly and, while the victim is still alive, tears out his still-beating heart as an offering to placate the gods to end the drought.

It takes a freakish act of nature to save Jaguar Paw, but he and the few other survivors are quickly made objects of sport in an arena, from which commences the long and eventful chase of Jaguar Paw by Zero Wolf and his minions back through the jungle. Double-whammy ending tips over into undue melodrama that some may find risible, and one aspect of the climax establishes the film's time frame as much later in Mayan history than one might have guessed.

Notwithstanding the fantastic sets, costumes, makeup, body and hair designs and natural locations, perhaps the greatest impression is made by the performers' faces, which are superbly photogenic and unlike any normally seen in movies. The attractive, agile Youngblood carries the film with room to spare, and is entirely convincing in his many dramatic moments as well as in the intense action. Casting director Carla Hool rates a huge bonus for tracking down the people who play everyone from the most savage looking warriors to the paralyzingly weird female aristocrats in the city.

One notable aspect of the characterizations is the general attitude toward death. The Mayans as portrayed here naturally fear it like anyone, but they accept it, just as they acknowledge physical pain as an everyday aspect of life. They are utterly without sentimentality, tears or remorse; when one is about to die, another will sincerely tell them, "Travel well," and that is that. Blood and violence is abundant, but doesn't feel exaggerated or out of line in relation to the material.

Production is a wonder. Dean Semler's camera moves relentlessly through the densest of foliage and over the roughest of terrain on locations near Veracruz and in the rainforests of Catemaco, with some additional shooting done in Costa Rica and the U.K.; Gibson clearly knew the impact the lenser of the second and third "Mad Max" films could deliver. More remarkable still is that pic was shot on the new high definition Genesis camera system. Without a doubt, "Apocalypto" is the best-looking big-budget film yet shot digitally; one can't tell it wasn't shot on film.

James Horner composed an uncharacteristically low-key and moody score, full of threatening, choral-like synthesizer growling, woodwind interludes and alarming percussive strikes.

(VARIETY, December 1, 2006)