Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked;
protect me from the violent
who have planned my downfall.
The arrogant have hidden a trap for me,
and with cords they have spread a net;*
along the road they have set snares for me.
We know from the quotation from historian Will Durant at the outset of the film that Mel Gibson does not intend to bring us just another action/adventure film, though Apocalypto, set during the declining days of the Mayan civilization in the mid-15th century, certainly is. Indeed, after the initial pastoral section showing tribal village life as peaceful and laced with humor, the film turns into the most adrenalin-pumping, suspenseful cliff-hanging story that you are ever likely to see. A sense of foreboding arises when a hunting party from the village encounter in the rain forest a band of Indians who request permission to pass through their territory. Granting this, the father of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), noting how fearful the refugees faces are, tells his son that he must not allow such fear to control him.
However, the tribe does have much to fear, when a band of warriors led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), creep through the bush and attack the village, quickly killing many warriros and children, raping the women, and subduing and tethering the survivors. During the struggle Jaguar Paw manages to hide his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and daughter in a deep pit, promising that he will return for them. This will prove difficult because he is captured after a struggle with the sadistic Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios) and tethered with his fellow tribesmen to a long pole. Just how sadistic Snake Ink is we see when, learning that the village chief is Jaguar Paw’s father, he promptly kills him in front of his son.
The captives are transported through the forest, up along a mountain path, and across flowing streams, their captors revealing nothing of their destination or fate. They enter a devastated area that is covered with white ash from the kilms turning the chopped down trees into charcoal. It is easy to tell who are the slaves because their bodies also are covered with residue from the white ash. There is also much sickness, a diseased girl uttering a prophecy of doom to the war party. They enter a huge city dominated by several pyramids. A large crowd has gathered around the largest one, atop of which a priest and the rulers stand. Ball-like objects bounce down the steep steps at intervals, the crowd roaring its approval. Gibson’s camera catches all sorts of details during this sequence—the noble women, with elaborate hairdos that rival in height those of the ladies of the French court, carried aloft on litters; the ragged appearance of the slaves; the rich array of products being sold at the stalls in the bazaar.
As the captives are led up the pyramid steps and arrive at the top they realize their intended fate. Assistant priests paint the body of a prisoner blue and escort him to the altar. The high priest stands above the captive spread-eagled on the altar and prays that the victim’s blood will satisfy the gods so that the drought and plague will be lifted from the land. He then plunges his obsidian dagger into the victim’s chest, cuts out the still-beating heart, and holds it out to the cheering people. The assistants then cut off the man’s head and toss it down the steps, the body soon following.
How Jaguar Paw manages to escape such a fate and then enter into the most exciting chase since Drums Along the Mohawk or The Fast Runner will leave you almost breatless. Gibson and co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia have crafted a story that never lets up in its suspense. The film celebrates the resilience of the human spirit (the scene often switches back to the pit where Seven struggles to stay alive, with her eventually giving birth to her child in what is probably the most horrendous circumstance of any film), but is marred again by the excessive violence. Starting with Braveheart in 1995, the filmmaker seems to have become obsessed with violence. His picture of the culture of the Mayas might be an antidote to anthropoligists who celebrate its many cultural and scientific accomplishments and downplay its gory religion that included human-sacrifices (as Joseph Campbell did), but does he need to go so far, one might ask? Thus although Apocalypto is an oustandingly well made film, its message may well be lost amidst the blood and gore.
1) How does the request of the tribe for permission to pass through the territory foreshadow what is to come? How is Jaguar Paw’s fathers admonition not to let fear possess his son good advice? Check out how often such an admonition is to be found in the Bible.
2) How is the region outside the city an ecological disaster? Note that a recent History Channel program suggested that this was a major reason why the Mayan civilazation went tinto decline—their nearby forests had been stripped for wood; the lime created for the mixture of building material permeated the air and land; and the polluted fields could no longer sustain the corn crop to feed the large population.
3) What signs of decay do you see in the Mayan city as the captives are led through the streets? What contrasts between the wealthy and the populace?
4) Aside from being in good physical condition, what do you think sustains Jaguar Paw during his epic run for freedom? How do we see this same quality in his wife Seven?
5) What do you think of Will Durant’s assertion, quoted as a foreward to the film, that a civilization’s demise is due first of all to an inward decay before an external foe destroys it? What parellels with our Western Civilization is Gibson apparently drawing? What do you think of this? What signs of decay do you see? Anything being done to reverse them?