Apocalypto (2006)

When it’s on: Saturday, 28 March (10.50 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Recently, I’ve been catching up on History Channel’s Vikings, which isn’t quite as visceral as it might be but is cracking drama all the same. One of the things I like best about it is the interaction between the Vikings and Anglo Saxons. When we’re focusing on either group exclusively, they all speak English, but on the occasions when they communicate with each other then the ancient Nordic and Old English languages come out to illustrate the barrier that separates them. I love hearing those ancient ‘tongues’ brought back to life, even for the sake of screen drama; I’d be lost without the subtitles, obviously, but there’s something ‘earthy’ about the long lost dialects, a connection between the people and the land they inhabit that brings out the harshness of the Vikings’ way of speaking, the Latin and German influences on those old Britons, the occasional word that has made it through the ages and is still in use today.

There’s something of that spirit in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, in which the characters speak Yucatec Mayan throughout. You might see that as a gimmick. The counter-argument is that it adds to the film’s sense of authenticity, the way you can almost picture the language growing from the jungle environment and lack of contact with the outside world. Similarly, the film works hard to build the Mayan ‘world’. Based on existing sights that are still in existence, with a level of imagination thrown in, the aim of the film is to create a place you have never seen before, a civilisation that is now buried in history but once thrived and grew strong.

Much of the film’s point is that even those good times are in the past. The Mayan culture depicted in Apocalypto is dying, suffering from seasons of drought and, unable to explain what’s happened beyond the anger of their gods, they start offering human sacrifices in an attempt to regain divine favour. The film follows Jaguar Paw (Rudy Younglood), a young hunter who’s part of a peaceful Olmec tribe living in the Mesoamerican forests of Mexico. His is presented as an almost paradisaical existence, dependent on hunting tapirs and other jungle animals yet happy in his little tribe, where everything is based on families and the circle of life. One night, his village is raided by Mayan warriors, and Jaguar has just enough time to get his heavily pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and young son, to safety inside a deep vertical pit before he’s captured. Tied to a pole alongside other survivors whom the raiders haven’t killed, he’s led across country to the teeming Mayan city, where they’re all to be sacrificed by having their hearts cut from their bodies and then beheaded. A resigned Jaguar Paw is led to the chopping block, but before he can be killed a solar eclipse occurs, which the Mayan priests interpret as a favourable sign. The remaining Olecs are no longer needed and led to the warriors’ training area to be slaughtered. Jaguar Paw manages to escape and makes it back into the jungles, pursued hotly by a band of fighters, led by the legendary Zero Wolf (Carlos Emilio Baez). As the wounded hero starts a desperate race back to the remains of his village, it starts to rain, and the water levels in Seven’s pit rise.

The attention to detail in Apocalypto is simply outstanding. Considering it’s a film costing a comparatively modest $40 million, they create an entire city featuring thousands of extras, all wearing costumes and hair decorations that make clear their status in society, from the King with his enormous, feathered cape, through to the poor clad in rags. The contrast between the pastoral Olmec village and the city is also stark. Whereas the former depicts a real community in which everyone knows each other and laughs together, the city is a decadent ruin in waiting, overcrowded, motivated by selfish desire and with a pall of sickness surrounding it. The overall effect is astonishing, a riot of colour and endless sights, so vivid that it’s almost possible to smell the food, blood and sweat.

All the more impressive considering that Apocalypto, at heart, is an old-fashioned action adventure, an almighty chase through the jungle that never lets up. It works because the odds against Jaguar Paw seem so high – the calibre of those pursuing him, being in the middle of nowhere, the fact he’s taken an arrow wound before he even starts. Zero Wolf makes for a brilliant warrior; there’s a genuine sense of elation about his pursuit because he actually has something worth chasing for a change, not just rounding up miserable villagers for the sacrificial block. True, Jaguar Paw has killed his son when beginning his escape attempt, but it feels like this is subservient to the sheer thrill of the chase, the opportunity to prove himself as a high calibre hunter at last. And yet it emerges the fleeing hero is just as capable in his environment, using all manner of natural resources to deal with Zero Wolf’s men; at one thrilling, albeit gory stage a Jaguar is involved.

I admit I was thrilled from the start of the chase, overwhelmed by the visual treats beforehand. The heel turned out to be Gibson himself. Involved in a string of discrepancies and saying some very unfortunate things in the build-up to Apocalypto’s release, the director’s character was a divisive element in his own film’s success, ensuring its share of awards and box office were not all they could have been. Arguments have been posited that the film is entirely allegorical, returning to themes that had been explored in his previous The Passion of the Christ and suggesting a unhealthy level of anti-Semitism. I suppose those elements are present if you want them to be; personally, I didn’t get any of that and suspect there’s an element of digging too deeply into the alleged meanings behind what is a reasonably straightforward story. An altogether sad turn of events because Apocalypto, almost unique and at times savage, is a blast.

Apocalypto: ****