| “Apocalypto” begins with a group of young men out on a hunt and
lingers for a while in their happy, earthy village, a place that might
double as a nostalgic vision of small-town America were it not for the
loin cloths, the tattooed buttocks and the facial piercings. Blunted
(Jonathan Brewer) is nagged by his mother-in-law and teased by his
buddies because he hasn’t yet made his wife pregnant, but he accepts
his humiliation in good humor, like the jolly fat kid on a family
Meanwhile Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), whose father (Morris Birdyellowhead)
is an admired hunter and warrior, snuggles down with his pregnant wife,
Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and their young son, Turtle Run (Carlos Emilio
Baez). There’s fresh tapir meat on the grill and an old-timer telling
stories by the fire. Life is good.
Needless to say, this pastoral idyll cannot last. The ominous strains of James Horner’s
score indicate as much. Before long the village is set upon by fearsome
marauders, led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), who rape, burn and kill
with ruthless discipline and undisguised glee. The locals resist
valiantly, but the survivors are led away to an uncertain fate. Seven
and Turtle Run stay behind, hidden in a hole in the ground.
Jaguar Paw’s mission will be to rescue them and also to avenge his friends and kin. First, though, he will accompany us on a Cecil B. DeMille
tour of the decadent imperial capital, a place of misery, luxury and
corruption, where priests and nobles try to keep famine and pestilence
at bay with round-the-clock human sacrifices.
Neither Mr. Gibson’s fans nor his detractors are likely to accuse
him of excessive subtlety, and the effectiveness of “Apocalypto” is
inseparable from its crudity. But the blunt characterizations and the
emphatic emotional cues are also evidence of the director’s skill.
Perhaps because he is aiming for an audience wary of subtitles, Mr.
Gibson rarely uses dialogue as a means of exposition, and he proves
himself to be an able, if not always terribly original, visual
storyteller. He is not afraid of clichés — the slow-motion, head-on
sprint toward the camera; the leap from the waterfall into the river
below — but he executes them with a showman’s maniacal relish.
And it is, all in all, a pretty good show. There is a tendency, at
least among journalists, to take Mr. Gibson as either a monster or a
genius, a false choice that he frequently seems intent on encouraging.
Is he a madman or a visionary? Should he be shunned or embraced?
Censured or forgiven?
These are the wrong questions, but their persistence reveals the
truth about this shrewd and bloody-minded filmmaker. He is an
entertainer. He will be publicized, and he will be paid.