The man in the box office frowned as I offered my money. “You do know it’s not in English, don’t you?” Presumably he’d had complaints from customers thinking they were going into a standard Hollywood action thriller. But a film set just before the collapse of classical Mayan civilisation, directed by Mel Gibson, was always going to be subtitled.
No one knows why the Mayan civilization fell. The remnants of great cities, complete with vertiginous pyramids, were rediscovered by explorers hacking into the jungle during the last century. All seem to have been abandoned long before Europeans reached the Americas.
Apocalypto opens in the forests of the Yucatan peninsular at some unspecified time in history. Our hero, Jaguar Paw, is one of a group of men hunting game. We see village life and the ominous image of refugees from some terrible event walking through in search of new lands to settle.
The fall from grace comes swiftly. A raiding party destroys the village in an orgy of explicitly depicted violence. Those who are not killed are captured and bound, with the exception of our hero’s pregnant wife and child, who he secretes in a deep pit – a place that will be both their hiding place and their grave - if he can’t get back to rescue them in time. Jaguar Paw and his friends are then lead off towards a fate they don’t know but which we can guess. For the Mayans apparently practiced human sacrifice on an industrial scale. “Come back to me,” his wife pleads, which sets up all that follows.
For me the high point of this movie was the journey towards the apex of a pyramid and an appointment with a razor-sharp ceremonial knife. We pass from their forest home through landscapes increasingly despoiled, past the pox ridden and a starving population. We feel the bewilderment of Jaguar Paw and his companions as they are dragged through environments as alien to us as they are to him. They reach the city with its crowds of tattooed, scarified and pierced men and women, up to the place of death where sit the corrupt and corpulent heads of a civilisation heading for its apocalypse.
For that journey alone it was worth seeing this movie. Also for the fascinating array of faces, each beautifully individual and distinctly non-Hollywood. But what followed - a substantial chunk of the film – though gripping in action terms, felt wildly improbable. And the ending, which I won’t give away here, seemed to me starkly anachronistic.
I do admire Mel Gibson for producing movies that he wants to make rather than pursuing an ideal of middle-of-the-road commercialism. But ultimately Apocalypto left me with the sense of an opportunity missed. This could have been a great film.