Are we living in the end times? Fear is afoot in our culture and has led to great troubles and violence in Iraq and the Middle East. It is a sickness that sullies the soul and manifests in a variety of societal problems from distrust of outsiders to the diminishment of civility on the streets. Mel Gibson explores the many uses of fear in Apocalypto, an astonishing fictional depiction of the Mayan civilization in its waning days. This incredibly violent film with its unrelenting presentation of the sadistic and brutal side of human beings is not for the squeamish filmgoer. The hero is not a noble savage but we identify with him and the painful journey he undergoes in a quest to stay alive. The film reminds us of The Fast Runner, a cinematic masterpiece created out of the shards of an Inuit myth about love, murder, and communal discord. These two primal dramas take us away to worlds we have never seen before and draw out our empathy for the considerable struggles of the protagonists to endure a tsunami of troubles.
A small tribe of Mayan Indians live in the forest and have made the most of the environment which provides them with food and beauty and shelter. In the opening scene, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and a hunting party that led by his father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), have just chased down and killed a large animal. As they celebrate and then rib a tall fellow who has been having trouble making his wife pregnant, it is evident that these men share bonds that are similar to a large family.
They are about to take their catch back to the village when they meet up with a bedragged band of strangers who ask for passage through the forest. They report that their village has been destroyed. Flint Sky sees the dire effect these fearful souls have on his son and the other hunters. He warns them that fear is a sickness that will crawl into their souls and they must not bring it into the village. That night Jaguar Paw has a dream in which he is told to run. Shortly afterwards the village is overrun by a band of vicious Holcane warriors who murder most of the tribe and take the rest prisoners. Jaguar Paw just has time to hide his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and young son (Carlos Emilio Baez), in a deep pit. His life is spared by the leader, Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), but a particularly vicious warrior, Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), slits Flint Sky's throat before his son's eyes.
The screenplay by Farhad Safinia and Mel Gibson mixes nearly nonstop action with an apocalyptic presentation of the Mayan society in decline. The prisoners are being taken to a huge city filled with very rich and very poor people. Slaves working on giant pyramid structures move through crowds gathered to watch and cheer their priests and leaders. Outside this teeming place, a girl with smallpox is shunned by the prisoners and the Holcane warriors as she delivers a rant about the coming "blackness of the day."
The village women are sold in the city as slaves while the men are painted with blue powder and herded into the central plaza and then forced to climb to the top of the pyramid. There they are to be sacrificed to the gods as a means of ending the drought and the hard times. The high priest performs a ritual that involves cutting the hearts from the chests of the victims and then chopping off their heads, which are tossed down the steps to the cheering masses below. Here the Mayan religion is a bloody affair that does nothing to mitigate the violent impulses of human beings. Gibson proved in his previous films that he has a keen eye for startling images, and here he comes up with a field of decapitated bodies and some unimaginable scenes of man-on-man violence. By a surprising natural event in the skies, Jaguar Paw escapes the sacrifice but he must use every ounce of adrenalin in his body and his knowledge of the forest to outwit the Holcene warriors who pursue him.
"Hang out with your fear when you're feeling afraid. Follow its movement. Become intimate with it. Fear is an opportunity. Approach it like a tracker in the forest watch where it goes, what it does, what it eats, where it rests, where it turns, where it stops, where it hides. Embrace it. Stay with it, " writes Paul Rezendes in The Wild Within: Adventures in Nature and Animal Teachings.
Apocalypto makes the point that the way out of fear is to go through it. Flint Sky and a Holcene warrior who is bitten by a poisonous snake both die without fear. They do not run from it or try to avoid it. Fear is a boogeyman but it can't get a true hold on you if you know who you are and where you belong. Jaguar Paw stays with his fear and uses it to get himself back to where he has a chance for survival. He knows that the minute he ignores his fear or gives in to it, he's finished.
This basic wisdom is the best part of Apocalypto. All the frenzied action vividly illustrates the violence that resides in all human beings and the emptiness that comes with revenge. Movies have long been one way our culture confronts the shadow side of life. Through images of war, cruelty, and sadistic satisfaction in hurting others, these stories force us to face what we'd rather not think we are capable of. This may be Mel Gibson's strange mission among us: to help us own up to human savagery and to realize how desperately we need peace and love to counter-balance it.
Additional release material includes audio commentary by director Mel Gibson, deleted scenes with commentary, and a featurette, Becoming Mayan: Making of Apocalypto.