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You won't read much about Apocalypto that isn't first and foremost about Mel Gibson. It is, perhaps, unavoidable; the film's director is the drunken, ranting, reputation-self-immolating elephant in the room. Frames of the film will be dissected for what they will tell us about Gibson's now-infamous view of the world. People will look at his second consecutive film made in a largely unknown language (following The Passion of the Christ), and conclude that it's because employing the English language only seems to get Gibson in trouble.
Then again, were Gibson not such a polarizing figure, few people would pay much attention to this subtitled drama without a single familiar actor that is set 500 years in our past.
Without Gibson's baggage, it might also be easier to recognize what a purely effective piece of filmmaking Apocalypto turns out to be. You may not understand the language of Yucatec, but it's hard not to understand Gibson's language of pure visual cinema.
In pre-Columbus America, Apocalypto begins with a village and a young hunter named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). The things he values are simple: his family, including his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and the bonds of his village.
But that simplicity is shattered when the village is raided by Holcane warriors, led by the fierce Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo). Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and young son in a deep pit, but he is taken prisoner, along with several fellow villagers, to a Mayan city. The lucky ones will be sold as slaves; others may find themselves sacrificed to the gods.
Once our protagonist's plight is established, Gibson sets the quest in motion and rarely lets it rest. At 135 minutes, Apocalypto is a minor masterpiece of pacing, with the propulsive momentum of the set pieces keeping Jaguar Paw's survival imperative always at the forefront. The occasional cuts back to Seven and her son in the pit only heighten the urgency. There's also a truly terrific villain in Jaguar Paw's cruel, taunting antagonist Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena), the kind of bad guy that elevates any action film.
In the final hour of the film, few words are spoken that even require subtitles because the storytelling is so clear and stripped-down.
The relative silence also allows you to appreciate what Gibson accomplishes on the level of sheer spectacle. The Mayan city as realized by production designer Tom Sanders comes to life as a place not just alien to us, but alien even to Jaguar Paw and his comrades. Yet, in microcosm, we see the entire culture: slaves at work, ladies of leisure in their elaborate hairstyles, religious ceremonies, vendors in a vibrant marketplace. If anything was clear from Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, it's that Gibson understands how to re-create a society with a sense of epic scope. In that way, his filmmaking approach has remained consistent.
It remains consistent in other ways, too, not all of them for the better. But Gibson is more clear-eyed here about creating a narrative than he was when dealing with such tricky subject matter as the Crucifixion, even adding a sense of unexpected tragedy to the idea that this society will soon be overwhelmed by the Christian Spaniards.
Apocalypto is the kind of adventure that any kind of moviegoer could find gripping mostly because the characters onscreen ultimately matter more than the guy behind the camera.