Story Highlights• "Mel Gibson's Apocalypto" about decline of Mayan civilization
• Film is extremely violent, so much so it overwhelms story
• "Apocalypto" Gibson's follow-up to "Passion of the Christ"
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Having crucified Jesus in excruciating detail in his last film, and allowed himself to be drawn and quartered at considerable length in "Braveheart," Mel Gibson's fetish for movie martyrdom is as well known as his taste for claret.
On that score, his new film, "Mel Gibson's Apocalypto," is full-bodied and then some, a meaty red with plenty of punch and a bitter aftertaste. There is a story -- quite well told at times -- but the violence is unrelenting, often grisly, and ultimately sadistic.
Over the course of two or three days, Gibson's hero Jaguar Paw (newcomer Rudy Youngblood) will wake to find his village overrun by a rapacious war party. He will be beaten and bound, and see his father's throat cut for his captors' vicious amusement.
Then he will be marched through the forest along with the other men from his tribe, brought to a terrifying city where he will be daubed in blue pigment, dragged to the top of a ziggurat and laid down on a sacrificial altar where the high priest will prepare to pluck out his heart and slice off his head. It's at this point that the heavens will intervene, and Jaguar Paw is spared death to endure further trials.
It all brings to mind the old quotation, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." And the going here can get really tough.
In keeping with his title, though, Gibson prefers a more portentous quotation, something from the popular historian Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." But that epigraph suggests contemporary parallels the film barely hints at. (Watch Gibson talk about his intent )
Though "Apocalypto" is anthropologically exact and historically adventurous (to put it mildly), its director betrays little interest in Mayan society beyond its copious capacity for bloodletting.
Style and substance
This is a pity, because the most resonant sequence is the relatively brief but admirably controlled central passage from jungle through to the city. It's here we perceive the deforestation, mining and slave labor that underpins this civilization through the appalled and slowly comprehending eyes of Jaguar Paw.
An earlier sketch of tribal life in the rainforest, one near the movie's beginning, isn't exactly a bed of roses either (especially if you're a tapir) but is meant to point to a simpler, more family-oriented, sustainable tradition of hunting and scavenging.
But even here Gibson's style is apparent: There's some lowbrow comedy about an infertile husband tricked into trying phony aphrodisiacs to get his nagging mother-in-law off his back. The contrast between this vulgar conception of indigenous life and the idyll romanticized in Terrence Malick's poetic 'The New World' speaks volumes about the different sensibilities of a popular artist and, well, an unpopular one.
As in "The Passion of the Christ," Gibson proves adept at rendering subtitles more or less transparent, in part by telling a spare, mythic story in rigorously physical and visual terms, and in part by reducing the dialogue to cliches. ("He's f*****," one warrior notes dispassionately after a comrade is bitten by a snake, which sounds as witty in Yucatec as it reads in English.)
The filmmaking is uniformly impressive (kudos to cinematographer Dean Semler, a veteran whose association with Gibson goes back to another apocalypse saga, "Mad Max") but Mad Mel can't resist the temptation to run it into the ground, piling on layer upon layer of gratuitous torment. At one point he even sticks Jaguar Paw's pregnant wife and child at the bottom of a natural well and turns on the taps.
But if you can stomach the gore, don't mind your villains painted black and can credit Jaguar Paw's superhuman powers of recovery -- like the ability to outrun his namesake in the animal kingdom just minutes after being pierced by an arrow -- then the dramatic chase sequence that makes up the picture's last hour at least offers a knee-jerk thrill ride.
"Apocalypto" is far from the perfect vehicle to rehabilitate Gibson's severely damaged public image. But as a piece of filmmaking it's certainly strong enough to restore his commercial viability. Whether that's to the good is another question entirely.
Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw in "Apocalypto."
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