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USA 2006
Directed by
Mel Gibson
142 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars


Synopsis:  The once-great Mayan kingdom is nearing its end. In the cities huge edifices are built and blood sacrifices made to appease the gods. But deep in the jungle lives a more primitive, less urbanised tribe, going about their hunter-gatherer existence. Until one day a raiding party of Holcane warriors invades, wreaking devastation upon the village, slaughtering, raping and burning, then taking able-bodied people as captives to sell in the city. One man, Jaguar Paw, (Rudy Youngblood), before being taken away, has managed to hide his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and their young son in a deep cave, and is determined to escape his fate and return to rescue his family.

Excitement, a hero’s journey, serious violence, blood and gore, nail-biting tension, stupendous scenery and a chase scene to end all chase scenes: Apocalypto has it all.  However, it comes with a dire warning: if you are squeamish about violence, give it a wide berth. Like Gibson's 2004 box office smash, The Passion Of The Christ, his latest offering leaves me pondering: is its explicit violence is really necessary and does my aversion to it cause me to be less sympathetic to the film as such?  I have no pat answers, but do believe the troubled director certainly has some issues to do with his world view of good versus evil, the place of violence in it and the Catholic-inspired need for punishment.  That said, the film is a remarkable feat of movie-making on every front.

All the cast were chosen from indigenous people, either American Indian or central American and although many had never acted they were required to withstand the extreme physical demands of this film. Youngblood, in his acting debut is a marvel as he does many of his own stunts and looks remarkable, both beautiful and athletic, on screen. The Holcane warrior leader Zero Wolf is played by Raoul Trujillo who brings a formidable presence to his role of a powerful warrior whilst his cruel second-in-command, Middle Eye, is brought to life with convincing sadism by Gerardo Taracena. Aside from the physical rigours, each actor had to learn a new language, Yucatec, a Mayan dialect still spoken in Mexico today, and the only language spoken in the film.

Language is, however, secondary to the major thrust of this film – its look and its action. Filming in the last rain-forest jungle proximate to Mexico City, Gibson and cinematographer Dean Semler achieve a dynamic look using a brand new, high definition camera system which enables them to get stunning effects in the chase scenes. The lushness of the jungle, the awesomeness of the Mayan pyramids and the intense detail of every scene simply leap off the screen, making this a compulsory big screen experience. Add to this the costuming and make-up, with the astonishing tattoos and jewellery, and you get the feeling you’ve stepped into an anthropological picture book come to life.

Apparently much research was done into Mayan civilisation so it’s a shame that the focus is exclusively on its brutality, excluding any of its achievements. Yet, clearly the director wants to drive home the insight which is stated in the opening shot: “A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”.

As a vision of the end of a society and a way of life Apocalypto is brilliant film-making and for lovers of the action there’s plenty to enthrall.  And with its wonderful closing scenes there’s also the sense of endings and beginnings being inextricably interwoven.  




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