For Apocalypto, having the billing of a story occurring in the wane of the Mayan civilization just as the Spanish arrived, while not entirely a falsehood, is, in essence, beside the point. History, and indeed prior exposition, take a backseat to the centerpiece action in a movie bordering on the epic in terms of both scale and stylings. Mel Gibson had previously proven his chops in the director’s chair albeit in a historical retelling of an account known far more widely; the Crucifixion. Here, all the hallmarks of backstory are withheld in a dual serving of similar gore and epoch-making with the exception of the Spanish not arriving early enough to actively drive the plot.
Between disease, a drought-brought famine, and an unidentified invading force, there were a few indications foretelling impending peril in the earlier half of the film, but none as immediate as the band of local warriors that descend upon the protagonist’s idyllic deep forest existence to round up its inhabitants toward an ambiguous fate. Next, they’re taken on a grueling journey to an unknown destination. Enslavement by the Spanish? History aficionados may witness this development equipped with the requisite knowledge of the motives and endgame possibilities but Gibson, here, manages to obscure expectations, if not intentions, up to and during the trek.
In approximating a language spoken at that time, Gibson effectively goes to great lengths, taking pains to portray the culture in a neutral light, and, while inaccuracies abound, little exists as to sink the entire affair as cheap exploitation. Then we come to the issue of brutal practices potentially depicting an entire populace as barbaric. When the prisoners finally arrive—their children glaringly left behind from the start—men and women are separated, each presumably condemned to contrasting destinies, the pandemonium through which they’re ushered is a frenzied choreography of bustle amid a deafening cacophony. In contrast to the tribes-folks’ scant dress, female denizens appear in ornate headpieces denoting wealth or religious convent, and are seen marched ceremoniously together as if cheerleaders at homecoming; the men are dressed either in grotesquely intimidating armor or plain loincloth. Is this a typical market congregation in a nondescript town square or have we arrived at the falling empire’s capital itself? Gibson intimates some degree of the latter but dispenses with any dialog to confirm much past the calamities at the door.
By now, a procession of decapitated heads sent tumbling from a nearby steppe pyramid is well in session, with the crowd below erupting in intermittent cheers. The adorned women have now occupied front row seats as part of the ritual. If you’ve harbored an inkling of being treated to a human sacrifice at any point, you will have not guessed wrong. The village captives are taken to the high platform atop the structure and one by one are slaughtered as an offering in view of a stone-faced high priest or some powerful chieftain. This is all ceremonious and festive as an audience from far and wide, frail and strong, and young and old has flooded the area. The sequence is surreal, with the parallels to The Passion of The Christ palpable in terms of viscera and visual impact especially as Christ was paraded to the gleeful and indifferent ganders of bystanders while authoritative figures could barely conceal their culpability in this mayhem. And just as it was the protagonist’s time on the chopping block, a solar eclipse interrupts the sacrament.
Whether this is taken as a signal from satiated Gods ready to lift the scourge from their subjects or an omen to suspend observances, the villagers are dismissed from the ceremony to be disposed of in made-up ways by their captors. The horrors of unforgiving punishment and social inequities are truly compounded by the lack of direct exposition. Gibson has helmed a compelling, gripping tale of family drama at heart, littered with action all over. His protagonist endures a redemption arc not unlike Maximus’ from Gladiator with the final scene echoing the naval officers’ sudden arrival in Lord of the Flies. The real question is whether he’d committed a disservice to the craft, the culture, or both.