Think and say what you will about the beliefs and actions of Mel Gibson. One conclusion, however, is undeniable: He's a powerfully effective filmmaker. The films Gibson has directed demonstrate an increasingly deft understanding of epic scope, narrative mechanics, and visceral response. With his fourth feature film as a director, Mel Gibson continues his (probably unintentional) study of the mortification of the flesh through the ages. This is the theme that forms the consistent thread in his work and will prove more revealing than any scrutiny for sexism, Jew-baiting, and whatnot. Only now, after the graphic displays of extreme physical torture in Apocalypto
and The Passion of the Christ
, can we really notice Gibson's fixation on the scarification of the flesh in his two earlier films, Braveheart
and The Man Without a Face
. Whereas 2,000 years of Christian-era storytelling had prepared us for the ferocity of the injuries inflicted on Jesus Christ, we were not prepared for Gibson's near-pornographic obsession with the fleshy details of their depiction. Apocalypto
, which emphasizes the barbarity of late Mayan culture at the expense of its accomplishments in the sciences, written language, and city-building, is rife with assaults on the body – be they the tearing out of a living heart from a human sacrifice or the image of an animal impaled on the many sharp prongs of a hunter's trap. These details have the desired visceral effect on the viewer, and when combined with Gibson's command of the film's basic story of a husband and father's heroic journey to rescue his family, Apocalypto
becomes an absorbing drama. Youngblood plays the husband and father, Jaguar Paw, a forest-dwelling and self-sustaining tribal Mayan who, along with his brethren, is taken captive by urban Mayans, who plan to use the captives as slaves and human sacrifices. The movie is taken up with the physical trek into slavery, the spectacle of the human sacrifices in the strange urban center, and an escape that inches forward in a constantly changing balance of power and wits. Gibson shrewdly uses Native American and Mayan Indians as actors and employs subtitles to translate the minimal dialogue, which is delivered in the dialect currently spoken by the Mayan descendents on the Yucatan. Yet for all Gibson's attention to accuracy, there are many aspects that just don't jibe. Why, for example, are the forest-dwellers taken completely by surprise by the unfamiliar rituals and barbarism of their urban-dwelling distant relations, yet all speak the same dialect? And how is it that a climactic solar eclipse so baffles and confuses the same citizenry whose historical accomplishments include their advanced understanding of astronomy? Despite all these mitigating reservations, Apocalypto
is a dazzling achievement. Not only does it showcase a civilization little seen on the silver screen, the film (which opens with a quote from Will Durant) also advances larger questions about the natural and unnatural life cycles of civilizations. (That virtually all the Mayan natives eventually converted to Roman Catholicism I'm sure had nothing to do with Gibson's interest in telling this story – wink, wink.) Gibson is everywhere these days telling of how his made-up word "apocalypto" translates as "a new beginning." No one probably wishes for this more than he.