Mel Gibson's Apocalypto comes with a lot of baggage, some of which is related to the film, and some that isn't. So let's dispense straight away with the celebrity associations of Gibson and just concentrate on the film itself. That takes care of most of the baggage, but there's still a few things hanging over the film that have been said in the press in the lead up to the release.
There has been a push against the historical accuracy of the film, and this is something that I myself can understand since being a Highlander I felt quite strongly about the accuracy of Braveheart. Yet Braveheart was a great film despite taking liberties with history and not being a historical documentary I accepted them and enjoyed the film greatly.
With Apocalypto the charges are that it's not historically accurate to the Mayan's. There's also a further claim that it portrays them as savages and the Spanish Christians as their saviours. I'm going to address these points in my review, and hopefully show that the people who are focusing on these points are missing what the film is about, and to a degree they are wrong.
Many thanks to the excellent Edinburgh Ocean Terminal Vue Cinema for helping me see these films, they're a great bunch, superb service, excellent cinema, and man those hotdogs! It's lucky I have job too, otherwise I'd be seeing films and eating hotdogs all day!
Apocalypto is the story of the end a small village where an almost idyllic life is being led, until one day another tribe ravages their people and takes the surviving adults to the massive city of stone to be sold as slaves and sacrificed to their Gods. They fight for survival, and one man, Jaguar Paw, has to race against everything to try and save his family.
The dialogue is all non-English and in a traditional dialect, which adds great authenticity to the film and never once detracts from it. You'll find the subtitles are very easy to read and you'll be so pulled in by the characters and the story that you'll soon forget you're reading them.
The cast seem to be mostly locals, and although the entire cast aren't all non-actors, the majority have never acted and the few have had little experience, such as the lead Rudy Youngblood. Yet there's not a dud amongst them, and they all give amazingly natural and real performances.
That's something that really did strike me about the entire film, is that all the actors were so believable and strong. The villagers at the beginning pulled you close to them and you could feel their warmth for each other, and the invading tribe were menacing and vicious, of that there was no doubt in my mind.
A lot of this is also down to the director I'm sure. These people and actors couldn't have just arrived and given such strong performances without some guidance and coaching, and who better when you have such a talented actor as the director?
Even in the so called evil tribe you could see the bonds between them, and they showed humanity towards each other and a different kind of warmth to each other. Despite what you would expect going in, these are far from black and white characters.
So that was the biggest surprise for me, the acting, and how easily I was taken to these characters. The writing also came through superbly, from the characterisation, the early scenes which drew you close to the characters, the tension building from the moment the village awakes in the morning, to the subtle moments atop the temple between the King and his High Priest, these were all superbly written and visualised.
The direction and editing was strong, with some great visuals, huge sweeping camera shots, and wonderfully executed chase sequences. The tension is built high from early on in the film, and there's no real let up. The camera keeps moving through the scenes and helps to keep that pace going.
It's amazing to see what was achieved within the jungle, and yet there's no great reliance on huge sequences, the camera often prefers to keep close to the people and the action rather than pull back and attempt to awe us with the might of effects on the vast city pyramids or the great teaming jungle.
If I had to say something negative, I would nitpick that there were some chase shots which didn't fit too well when a camera was strapped to Youngblood looking back to his face while running, and the birth was really skirting with the idea of being too much at that point in the film.
There were also a few running shots which showed the digital quality as opposed to the slower cinematic shots which were stunning to look at. However it was digitally shot, and being used to this new style through other mediums and films, it's more a passing thought when you do notice it.
One final irritation was when the subtitles translated into modern day common phrases. There are two moments, one you might well miss and the other which gains a laugh and is mentioned in the IMDB memorable quotes. Perhaps it was meant as a moment for the audience to connect with the characters more, perhaps it was a joke, but it didn't sit properly within the context of the film. That said, they were passed in seconds.
Yet these are just little aspects of a film that was superbly created, wonderfully visualised and amazingly acted, if you could indeed say acted rather than just played out.
There has been a lot said about the gore factor in the film, and I did find myself wondering where it all was. There is perhaps one scene I would class as gore, when a jaguar is attacking a man, but the rest was what I would call realism. At no point did I feel that the film had overstepped the mark of portraying a strong degree of realism to becoming a horror or gore scene.
Yes, some scenes are graphic, but they are never gratuitous or unnecessary. The film is showing what a brutal and harsh life it would have been in those days living off the jungle and the jungle living off of you.
I would say that there are so many other films in Hollywood where the violence is far more gratuitous and gore filled, where Apocalypto is much more restrained and pulls back from the violence. There's a lot more that happens just off screen or in the distance as compared to so many other films out there.
One other aspect of the film which is utterly convincing is the costumes and the makeup. I'm not sure which is which at some points since the use of tattoos could be argued as both, so I'll just group these two aspects together and say that the work done on this film is fabulous. The dress, piercing, body markings and tattoos all add so much to the authenticity and to immerse you in the period and atmosphere of the film. This is perhaps one of the strongest areas of this film, and one which you could so easily just accept.
There were some excellent scenes which really stayed with me after the film. The miners covered with white chalk, the heads rolling down the great steps which were stained dark with old, dried blood, the jaguar chase, and one of my favourite, the High Priest and the King during the sacrifices.
This leads me nicely onto the discussions about the negative portrayals in the film. There are two that I'm really going to address, first the portrayal of the Mayan's as savages.
When we first meet them in the forest and then onto their village, these people are far from savages, one could say that they lead a more idyllic life than we do today. It's the group from the city that are the vicious people, and even then the film shows us that they are being led to do and believe what they do.
The film is not portraying the Mayans as brutal savages, not when we are shown so much love, warmth and bonding amongst the villagers to begin with, bonding and a type of warmth which we also see in the other tribe later on, between the lead hunter and his son.
There is merely a part of the culture which is corrupt and savage, and there's a very specific scene atop the temple which highlights this. There are glances back and forth between the King and the High Priest during the sacrifice where it's shown quite clearly that they know what they are doing, and when events occur they use them to their advantage to control the people around them. They are using the tactics of fear, intimidation, ignorance and religion and using it to ensure that the people do what they want.
For me this is an overriding message of the film which I took with me. We're doing this to ourselves, again and again. We're the ones committing atrocities, genocides and killings to each other, and it's happening again and again. This behaviour isn't a reflection on the Mayans as people. It's a reflection on Humans as a whole. We are the savages.
The scene I just described during the sacrifice is something leaders do throughout history, they use fear, intimidation, ignorance and religion to control the people and sometimes make them carry out terrible acts. It's happening in the world even today. Watch that scene again and see what you take away from it when you think less of the Mayans and more of Humanity as a whole.
The other point that seems to keep popping up is the portrayal of the Spanish arrivals as Christian saviours, and quite frankly I think it's saying the exact opposite. History tells us that they murdered and looted, is that a feeling of being saved? This scene just repeated the feeling I expressed above, that humanity does this again and again, and here was the next round of civilisation coming to rape and destroy the land and the people.
No, this isn't saying to me that Mayans are savages, or that the Christian Spanish were saviours. It's saying that we are the savages, and that this is what we do to ourselves.
Flint Sky tells Jaguar Paw not to let the disease of fear into his heart, for it spreads and destroys, and the storytelling elder tells us that the animals recognise man has a hole inside him and he will never be satisfied until that hole has been filled. These are words about humanity as a whole.
Overall this is a spectacular film with great scripting, direction, acting, costume and makeup, and it's got a very strong and necessary message to tell us. I loved it, and Gibson has excelled himself showing that he really does deserve to direct such big projects. He's excellent behind the camera, and long may he continue creating such films.
Edinburgh Ocean Terminal Vue Cinema
UK IMDB Film Details
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