San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Apocalypto’ Leaves Moviegoers Wondering

I loved “The Passion of the Christ.” Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a sadist or a fan of gore. What I loved was the character development Mel Gibson achieved for Jesus Christ; the exposition of unconditional love and compassion between Mary and her son was a fresh and poignant take compared to previous efforts. Gibson’s film did an excellent job in helping me understand and feel this relationship on a more intimate level. Though some might say Gibson used the Jesus-Mary relationship as an excuse for all the violence in the movie, the way I see it there is no connection between the two; rather, the unfolding of the relationship itself is the core of the plot, and the violence merely gratuitous. Gibson has practice in using this tactic; he also succeeded in moving audiences with “Braveheart.” His latest effort, “Apocalypto,” takes the same route, yet with a different outcome.

Synopsis: A small indigenous tribe in a still-undiscovered America gets ravaged by another, more violent one. As the men and women are taken prisoners, one man leaves his family behind, hidden, in hopes of returning and saving them. Little does he know that he has been selected as a sacrifice to the gods so that the injustice and poor living conditions the Mayans are facing might end.

As in Gibson’s previous movies, “Apocalypto” is centered on this one character:

Jaguar Paw (played by newcomer Rudy Youngblood), whose story, for some reason, Gibson thought was worth telling. There is no hint in the movie that distinguishes this man’s story from that of his tribesmen, except, of course, that his life is spared under very singular circumstances.

The whole idea of destiny with which the movie tries to play gets spoiled by the failure to introduce further motives for the viewer to believe in the main character. In other words, we don’t see a reason to root for him.

At no moment was I persuaded to see Jaguar Paw’s story as different or special. Hence, I left the movie theater feeling as if I didn’t know exactly what had happened. I knew I had watched an action flick of sorts, with meticulous production design and excellent performances by unknown actors. An interesting feature is that the entire movie is spoken in Mayan (with subtitles in Spanish, in Costa Rican theaters), which gives the experience a more authentic feeling. Still, I was longing for some involvement, some empathy.What went wrong?

The only explanation I can think of is that Gibson is trying to tell us something in signs (no pun intended), or perhaps in another language (such as Mayan). Something like “If your life is spared, your destiny has not been fulfilled.” Perhaps it’s more along the line of “Eclipses happen every other quarter century.” Or maybe the message of the film is “Run, Rudy, run!” Whatever it is, don’t assume you’ll find the answer at the movie theater.


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