Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto tells of a time that is known to us only through ruins and artifacts, but its message could scarcely be more urgent. The first big-budget narrative film set during the waning days of the Mayan empire, it shows us a once-great people poised on the brink of collapse, and the reasons for their imminent demise feel all too familiar: rapid climate change, the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources, tribal warfare and man’s unrelenting power lust. The Mayan calendar, it is often noted, ends in the year A.D. 2012 — a fact some have taken as a prophecy of apocalypse. And at the rate we’re going as a global village, Gibson’s movie suggests, we may well prove them right.

When Gibson first announced his intention to make a movie about the Maya, it seemed a logical move for a filmmaker whose last two pictures, Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, were both epic-scaled chronicles of life (and death) in ancient civilizations. But Apocalypto surprises us right from the start: Instead of focusing on the bustling centers of Maya culture — the great cities like Copan and Tikál, with their ornate palaces and pyramids — Gibson turns his attention to a tribe of hunter-gatherers in a small jungle village, and the early scenes have a downright quotidian sensibility. The tribesmen hunt wild boar and play practical jokes on one another. A nagging old woman prods her infertile son-in-law to produce her a grandchild. Then the village comes under siege from a warring sect — a merciless attack in which the tribal elder, called Flint Sky, sacrifices his own life to save that of his son, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood, a newcomer, like most of the key actors). And that’s just for starters. Having managed to hide his own young son and very pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) in a (relatively) safe place, Jaguar Paw is bound with the other survivors and marched off to a populous urban center — a spectacular feat of Cecil B. De Mille–inspired production design — where a high priest conducts human sacrifices to the angry god who has wrought famine and plague upon the land. Heads roll, literally, down the steps of the ritualistic altar, while a massive crowd cheers its approval.

But Gibson — and I suspect this will be one of the most widely misunderstood aspects of the film — takes no pleasure in the bloodletting, nor does he expect us to. Rather, like The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto strives to make us recoil from the screen, to feel in our gut the impact of each flesh-piercing spear and skull-splitting rock — in short, to reorient us to the brutality that so many movies (including some of the ones that helped to make Gibson a star in the first place) offer up for our titillation. It’s also Gibson’s way of marveling that a people as advanced as the Maya could also have been driven to drench the earth in their own blood and that of their brothers, and to believe that doing so might bring them closer to God. Imagine that. People squirm in their seats at a Mel Gibson–directed movie, and I doubt he would have it any other way. Yet for all its intentional unpleasantness, Apocalypto is a hypnotic experience; you can’t take your eyes off it.

There have been greater, subtler films made about dying societies uncomfortably meeting up with their own destiny — the German director Werner Herzog alone has made a few of them. But as in The Passion, Gibson isn’t particularly interested in nuance. Rather, his filmmaking has the primal intensity of a cave painting or an oral legend. Gibson makes movies about man in conflict with God, himself, his fellow man, society and even the supernatural, and they speak to the broadest number of people in the most direct and accessible way — even when all of the dialogue is in the Yucatec Maya language. There are English subtitles in Apocalypto, of course (one line is even fittingly, if anachronistically, translated as “He’s fucked”), but they’re hardly needed, for Gibson is so adept a visual storyteller that you get caught up in the blunt force of the images: Mayan prisoners running zigzag for their lives in a primitive amphitheater spectacle; fearsome warriors, seen from above, cutting a swath through a maze of maize; mother and child clinging to life in a rapidly flooding underground cave. (The cinematographer, Dean Semler, shot the first Mad Max sequel, The Road Warrior, and it’s clear that Gibson learned more than a few things from the bouts of breathless, wordless combat that Semler and the director, George Miller, staged in that film.)

By the time you are reading this, those who insist upon turning Mel Gibson into a divisive political issue on the order of abortion and handgun control will have alternately condemned Apocalypto as an orgy of sadism and celebrated it as a profoundly spiritual experience. For those of us who prefer to judge Gibson solely in terms of his art, the movie is a virtuosic piece of action cinema — particularly in its second half, as Jaguar Paw sets out to rescue his family, with his captors in hot pursuit. What’s more, it registers as a deeply personal vision on behalf of its maker. It is, simply put, the story of a man who is tried by fire, who must wrestle with demons both internal and external, and who finds, in family, a sense of salvation and even hope for the future. (Remember that Gibson is one of 11 children and is himself the father of eight.) That may not seem an especially profound sentiment, but there is ample evidence to suggest that we are not living in especially profound times. And while there has been no shortage of recent films that decry the horrors of war and man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, I know of none other quite this sickeningly powerful.

APOCALYPTO | Directed by MEL GIBSON | Written by GIBSON and FARHAD SAFINIA | Produced by GIBSON and BRUCE DAVEY | Released by Touchstone Pictures | Citywide

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