Gin-jockey, Bible-hugger, Jew-disser, overly fast talker… Say what you like about Mel Gibson the man, but, on the evidence of Apocalypto, he sure knows what to do with a movie camera. In the Making Of, he’s as keen as a barrel of puppies; all pinball eyes and lolling tongue, scampering from actor to actor, panting out his motivations, paws clawing and whirling, living out his vivid visions.
Happily, the passion of the Mel transmits to his film, a relentless, heart-hammering, utterly captivating period epic set around the end of the Mayan civilisation. The faintly porn star-named Rudy Youngblood heads a cast of (excellent) unknowns as a peaceful young tribesman thrown into survival horror when his village is plundered by warlike rivals.
Don’t believe the hype about ultra-violence undermining the story. Sure, Gibbo can seem a bit keen to uncork the claret, but the visceral zeal is more about authenticity than being splatter-happy. Apocalypto isn’t a sterile love letter to the cheeky monkeys and swaying trees; it rightly casts the jungle as a savage and sweaty hotbed of beauty and brutality. Not that he passes on the opportunity for pretty pictures (shimmering sunsets, a titanic waterfall...).
By focusing on the contrast between Earthbound wisdom (“Fear is a disease!”) and sacrificial frenzy, Gibson muffles his Iraq-nudging point (external conquerors can never snuff out a society’s original spirit). But from sheer force of will, Apocalypto deserves to stand beside Werner Herzog’s classic Fitzcarraldo as a suicidally ambitious riff on the folly of trying to tame the untameable.