Friday, May 25, 2007
Apocalypto proves that Mel Gibson has more in common with Leni Riefenstahl than anti-Semitism and a penchant for Fascism. Gibson also shares her keen eye for capturing the athletic human form in aesthetically pleasing and sumptuous ways. I found the film at once shockingly beautiful and troubling, and enjoyed it more than The Departed, The Queen, or The Last King of Scotland.
Gibson may be a raving lunatic at times, but whatever demons he's wrestling don't prevent him making interesting films. Upon its release, A.O. Scott wrote a review in the New York Times which was backhandedly enthusiastic. Scott simultaneously praised Apocalypto and damned it as more interesting than good. I'd agree with that assessment, but found Apocalypto very interesting--definitely interesting enough to overcome its plot shortcomings. I think Scott complained about the pornographic violence, while admitting the film was technically superior. It's a stirring evocation of a lost culture, an imaginative and brutal achievement, and was perhaps intended as a visionary plea for ecological sense and against imperial hubris.
Would I call Gibson an artist? I don't know. He's tackling vital current issues* in this film, which is his best directorial effort--much better in fact than the oft-lauded Braveheart. The story? Mostly forgettable, but I was enthralled throughout. As a recreation of a lost civilization it's on a par with another underappreciated masterwork, Fellini's Satyricon. The sequence in the Mayan city is brilliant. The Mayan religion at last has its own Sign of the Cross. And no, it is no exaggeration to compare this film to a Cecil B. DeMille classic.
Good Lord, perhaps I am calling Gibson an artist.
*Gibson opens with a quote by Will Durant, something to the effect that internal decay defeats an empire before external threats can. Is this the standard right-wing twaddle about moral decadence leading to God's wrath? Gibson's film does imply the Mayans had it coming when the Spaniards arrived to wipe them out. Their naughty and brutally repressive political and religious classes are wonderfully portrayed in the film. I think, intentionally or not, that Apocalypto is richer and more subtle than one would expect, knowing what we know about Mel's personal belief system.