Released hot on the heels of his highly publicized, alcohol-fueled, anti-Semitic kerfuffle with the Malibu police, it's difficult to separate the themes and images in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006) from his real-life shenanigans. And perhaps the fact that his name was part of the promotional title (prominent on the DVD boxcover) is a hint that one shouldn't even try to separate them given the themes of faith and the downfall of civilization in the picture, remaining mindful of Gibson's strict Catholic beliefs may help to put it all into some sort of perspective. Yes, the film is brutal and violent and could very well be the work of a very disturbed mind. But it's also a surprisingly mainstream action picture albeit a really freaky one with a whole lot of gore with moments of real beauty and suspense scattered amid the carnage. Shot in the jungle on digital video, and cast with a collection of indigenous natives, Hispanic actors, and Native Americans who speak their lines in the Mayan tongue, the subtitled saga focuses on a village chieftain's son, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), who serves as an analog for Gibson's Passion of the Christ version of Jesus. He's an almost-superhumanly strong hero who endures the destruction of his village, the slaughter of his father, and a near-miss with a temple priest's knife, then sprints through the jungle to ultimately turn the tables on his captors (you know just like Jesus should have done.) Basically, the film's drenched with Gibson's unique brand of crazy, and Apocalypto, for all its genuine strengths, comes off as a fantasy in which Christ, after suffering the more brutal lashings and beatings at the hands of the Centurians, is able to escape into the jungle and turn into Rambo.
Gibson's take on the Mayans is presented unapologetically at the beginning of the film with a quote from Will Durant "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." The beatings, scalpings, stabbings, and gushing buckets of blood that accompany the attack on Jaguar Paw's village are merely a prelude to a climactic set-piece atop temple steps, in which the captured men are served up for sacrifice and their still-beating hearts are cut from their chests. Throughout the picture, Gibson chooses not to share any of the great achievements of the ancient Mayans, who created what's considered one of the most advanced civilizations of ancient America. We see nothing of their arts, science, or sophisticated politics instead, the camera's journey through the teeming Mayan city shows us thousands of brown-skinned people butchering animals in the streets, coughing up blood as they're forced to mine rocks, and enthusiastically cheering each severed head that's bounced down the temple stairs. Never mind the historically documented advances of the Mayan culture Gibson presents it all as an unsanitary trip through a Third World version of Gomorrah.
Throughout the entire endeavor, Gibson indulges his love for the kind of pornographic violence that marked his Passion, and heaven knows the historical accuracy is beyond questionable but one can't dismiss Apocalypto entirely. This is a film made by someone who's controversial (some would say seriously screwed-up), but not without talent, and it's all quite fascinating in the same way that one watches a particularly graphic program about surgical procedures on the Discovery Channel a part of you really doesn't want to see it, but it's so fascinating that you can't look away. You may not agree with Gibson's politics or with his warped view of ancient cultures, but one thing's for certain Apocalypto is the best R-rated Mayan adventure film with graphic depictions of vivisection that you'll see on DVD. Which counts for something.
* * *
Buena Vista's DVD release of Apocalypto offers up an excellent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that shows off the truly amazing digital cinematography by DP Dean Semler subject matter aside, this is perhaps the most beautifully shot DV feature to be released to date, and it garnered Semler an Outstanding Achievement nomination from the American Society of Cinematographers. Meanwhile, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (subtitles are offered in English, French, or Spanish) does justice to the Oscar-nominated soundtracks. Bonus features include a very detailed commentary track by Gibson and co-writer/co-producer Farhad Safinia, who discuss everything from casting and working with the actors to the various difficulties of their jungle location; a pointlessly included deleted "scene" which is just 30 seconds of a deer walking by; and "Becoming Mayan: Creating Apocalypto (25 min.), which offers behind-the-scenes clips and reminiscent sound-bites from a rather wild-eyed Gibson and others involved in the production. Keep-case.