What is it with Gibson and suffering? Probably his extreme Catholic faith; but Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, all feature sacrifice of the most torturous and sadistic kind imagainable. The violence in Apocalypto is the kind which banned Cannibal Holocaust and other such video nasties in the mid 80s. It is amazing how this ritual torture is considered mainstream entertainment and perhaps our decadent viewing habits are leading us down the same slippery path as Gibson's Mayans.
However nothing should take away the fact that Apocalypto is a rip-roaring chase of a movie which not only pounds the audience into submission with bone crunching action, but also massages them gently with Dean Semler's sumptuous cinematography.
As historically inacurate as Gibson's piece is he manages to transport his audience into a completly different universe. He does this by the superb use of the Mayan language, the rich jungle setting and some fabulous body art which the director seems to have retained from his time in Mad Max 3.
It is the comparison between the sophisticated but decadent Mayans and the simple but graceful tribesmen which really give Apocalypto weight and remind us of our own predicament. The Mayans are corrupt, gorging themselves on human sacrifice, consuming their enviroment at an alarming rate and dressing to excess. They are the ultimate consumer society, feeding off of misery, superstition, and fear. This is visually revealed by the obese infant present at the ritual killings in the city. They are the tabloid classes of their day, believing that greater rates of death will solve their woes, just as we clamber for a return to the death penalty and a more draconian system of rule to straighten out our own moral panics.
The tribesmen in contrast are beautiful to look at, not so grotesquely dressed, but sleek and at one with the forest, only violent when pushed hideously and ultimately believe in the traditional family unit. The Mayan women are largely absent and those who are seen are painted heavily and are portrayed as enjoying the mass slaughter rather than as the bringers of life. The Mayans seem to be a patriarchal society and this would help to explain their excessive violence.
Gibson's politics run all the way through this film but even after the questionable arrival of the Spanish at the end, the audience will have almost forgotten his very dicey rhetoric of the past. Perhaps that's what Apocalypto was designed to do.