The dim past--that place where the mindlessly cruel and the idealistically aspiring meet in vicious conflict--has been good to Mel Gibson. It brought him Oscars for Braveheart and hundreds of millions of dollars for The Passion of the Christ. It satisfies his directorial bloodlust and permits him to traffic in easily read moral metaphors about the issues of our own day.
Apocalypto, set in 16th century Latin America, is more of the problematic same. By dawn's early light, a brutish Maya war party falls upon an Edenic jungle village--murder, rape and enslavement their goal. Among their captives is Jaguar Paw who, having hidden his pregnant wife and firstborn, narrowly escapes--a little divine intervention here--having his heart cut out by the Maya high priests. He is then given the opportunity to run to save himself (and his family), which involves a high degree of athleticism and a lot of skill at improvising killing tools from such simple materials as come into his desperate hands.
If you care to accept all this as a well-made adventure story, feel free to do so. But taken in Gibsonian context, it is clear that something more than sadism stirs the director's soul. For one thing, he wants us to see that late Maya civilization is analogous in his view to our own. It is given to worshipping false idols and values and, for all its military might, is rotting from within. Even the simple village, before it is destroyed, revels in irrelevant pleasure. What everyone needs is, well, a savior. And that's where Jaguar Paw comes in. He is, for all intents and purposes, dead not once but half a dozen times in this movie, yet always manages a resurrection. He even has a spear wound in his abdomen, not unlike a certain other divine figure. Most important of all, he is at one with his universe. The natural order keeps magically providing for this good son, because his heart is pure. There's even a moment when the Spanish conquistadores appear, crosses prominently displayed. But Jaguar Paw rejects this display of muscular, official Catholicism--as has Gibson, who prefers a less mainstream version of the faith.
Gibson loves operating in that historical territory where the record is sketchy and subject to mythic reinvention, which leaves him--and anyone else--free to fill in the blanks with whatever dubious ideological instruction he likes. You can also argue, less cosmically, that his works are no more than extensions of a very long line in epic, unconsciously risible filmmaking that imparts earnest metaphorical lessons about metaphysical topics, often enough from people who are painted blue or speaking a language that needs subtitles, or both, as in this film. Gibson is a primitive all right, but so were Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, and somehow we survived their idiocies. Doubtless there will come a day when he joins them in the Valhalla of the vacuous. One or two more Apocalyptos ought to do the trick.