After some delays, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is finally scheduled to hit theaters on December 8. Like his previous opus, The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto is done entirely in a foreign language with subtitles. And just like the last time, audiences are in for a treat.
Apocalypto tells the story of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young warrior on the outskirts of the Mayan civilization whose wife is pregnant with their second child. Early one morning, Mayan warriors attack their village and take many of the tribesmen and women captive whereupon they are forced to march to a Mayan city. They learn that they are to be sacrificed to appease the gods but, as all the commercials and trailers have indicated, Jaguar Paw is not ready to die.
It does not take long for the hand of a great director to become evident, and in Apocalypto it is obvious early on that a master has fashioned the film for us. There is creativity in the shots; deftness in handling the actors; coherence between subject and presentation; a sense that every small part is working fluidly in the larger whole. When a director knows how to please the eye and when an experienced editor can subtly weave the shots together, a critic’s work becomes difficult, because it is easy to slip into a fascinated trance like the rest of the audience rather than examine the piece with an actively discriminating eye. Such is the case with Apocalypto, which demonstrates that Mel Gibson is as talented as any director in the business.
But there is something else that Mr. Gibson does remarkably well, something that is often difficult even for talented directors — he brings a familiar humanity to the most foreign of subjects and situations. Historical epics are notoriously unconcerned with the little details, filled with kings sitting on thrones making bold pronouncements, sweeping battle scenes, and very little of the everyday life. Like stereotypes, these films show little concern for nuance, complexity or delicate detail, preferring to paint in bold, wide brushstrokes.
But with Apocalypto Mel Gibson gives us something more. To cite just one example, at the top of the Mayan pyramid where men are sacrificed, the royal family (we presume them to be such) sits regally watching the proceedings. The patriarch and matriarch are with their son and daughter, all of them dressed up to the Mayan nines. Most directors would stop right there, but Mel Gibson delves into it a bit. He gives us a shot of the teenage daughter rolling her eyes in boredom; she’s seen this before and she would rather be somewhere else. When the royal couple stand to face their subjects, the young son tugs on his mother’s robes, demanding attention, and she surreptitiously slaps at his clutching hands and shoos him away.