In Apocalypto, Mel Gibson's pre-Columbus Mayan action film, a young mother treats her son's wounded leg in a memorable fashion: She presses ants to the gash so that when they bite, their mandibles close the wound like stitches, and then she pinches off their heads with her fingernails, in extreme close-up.
And that's the nicest scene in Apocalypto, with the mother's tenderness and the boy's bravery playing against the gory sight of primitive surgery. Apocalypto's most admirable qualities, including narrative intensity and historical fidelity, go hand-in-bloody-hand with grotesque imagery, including multiple impalings, ripped-out hearts, headless bodies, bodiless heads and a jaguar eating someone's face. Apocalypto has enough power to distract from speculation about Gibson's apparent anti-Semitism, but renews questions about his sadomasochistic tendencies as a filmmaker.
With attention to detail worthy of a documentary, Apocalypto immerses the audience in the daily life of a small village in the Mexican jungle. Despite the exotic trappings -- the piercings, tattoos and loincloths -- we can recognize our common humanity with Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a cocky young hunter who teases a buddy over a fresh kill, but also has a sensitive side. Apocalypto's early scenes feature practical jokes and mother-in-law gags, suggesting that humor is universal, although there's a cruel edge to the villagers' mockery of an infertile young hunter.
Paradise is lost by a raid from stealthy, well-armed slavers, who murder the defenders, rape some of the women and leave the bodies and grieving children behind. Able-bodied survivors such as Jaguar Paw are bound together by yokes and led on a forced march toward a crowded Mayan city. From Jaguar Paw's sheltered point of view, it's like a trip to an alien planet, or maybe hell itself.
He witnesses massive deforestation, with a falling tree nearly flattening the captives. He sees the victims of strange illnesses as well as enslaved miners, their bodies powdered pure white. And at the summit of the city's huge pyramids, he sees grotesquely masked priests performing mass decapitations for ecstatic crowds. In the film's extended last act, the nightmarish rituals give way to a gripping chase sequence, along the lines of The Most Dangerous Game, with Jaguar Paw trying to outrun ruthless pursuers and rescue his family.
Apocalypto contains some surprising echoes of Gibson's Mad Max movies, with Jaguar Paw's scariest adversary having a passing resemblance to the Lord Humongous from The Road Warrior. Even the worst of the villains have humanizing qualities, such as a touching father-son relationship between a pair of ruthless warriors. Youngblood and the rest of the cast prove easy to identify with, despite the distance between the characters' societies and our own.
Gibson's stated intent goes beyond simple historic adventure. The film begins with a quote from Will Durant about the fall of civilizations, and you can even find an unexpected parallel between Apocalypto and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth: Both portray civilizations -- the Mayans vs. the contemporary world -- engaging in practices that will be harmful in the long run. A social structure based on human sacrifice may be no more sustainable than one that relies on harmful pollutants.
But is that the film's theme, or simply its justification? Apocalypto ultimately shows the same interest in Mayan decadence that, say, your average inner-city action film has in exploring poverty issues. Provocative exploitation films -- even lavish period epics such as Apocalypto -- can have deeper implications than cheap thrills.
Given the emphasis Gibson placed on torture scenes in his other major films Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, he seems most motivated by fetishizing pain and violence rather than tracing the currents of history. Maybe he'll follow Apocalypto with a film about the Spanish Inquisition, or maybe just a sequel to Hostel.