Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Movie Notes: Apocalypto (2006)

Fate is cruel.

Make no mistake- this is a brutal, bloody movie and I'm sure that it will make many viewers more than a bit queasy. However, I'm rather fond of brutal and bloody movies myself, when they're done well, because they have a certain visceral power to them that is lacking in almost all other sorts of films. When pressed to decide what it is that compels me to a film like the original Friday the 13th, I'd have to say that it's the sense of merciless fate throughout the film. I really think that Friday the 13th works like a Greek tragedy. There is a subtext to certain horror films, and The Birds is another example of it, that corresponds to classic notions of fate- the universe as a pitiless killing machine, tripped by careless individuals and their thoughtless transgressions against its underlying order. The classic reading of slasher films was that this transgression involved teenage sex, and was therefore reactionary, but the few classics of the genre, such as Halloween, seemed to suggest that the transgression couldn't be understood, and therefore couldn't be prevented. As in all tragedies, once the lever of fate had been tripped, things roll on to their inevitable, horrible climax.

Apocalypto is a film whose visuals are nearly silent era and whose ideas are distinctly pre-modern. The Mayan civilization depicted in the film is visually stunning, but it has transgressed ethical behavior through conquest and human sacrifice, and therefore is fated to be destroyed. The instrument of fate in the film is also the hero Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), whose tribe has been enslaved and massacred, with the exception of his wife and son who he has hidden in an underground cave and has to save. In his escape, which is helped along every step of the way by the interventions of nature, he begins the destruction of the decadent Mayan civilization, whose ultimate collapse is foreshadowed in the last scenes.

So, on the other hand, the film also works as a classic action film. Jaguar Paw's tribe is established and enslaved, they are brought to the Mayan temple, and the last act is a chase in which Jaguar Paw returns to his family with help from various twists of fate. As an action film, it is a stunning visual spectacle that reminded me of silent films such as Metropolis and particularly D.W.Griffith's Intolerance in its portrayal of a decadent but magnificent society. And the chase sequence was particularly exciting, although as with all such sequences, the hero seemed a bit indestructible.

Of course, he's supposed to be indestructible; he's an instrument of fate. I would say that the only problem that I had with the film was that the characters are a bit too archetypal- Jaguar Paw reminded me of Rama in the Ramayana in that he essentially follows his single path throughout and is protected by the cosmos for doing so. As with Rama and Ulysses, his is a quest to return to his beloved, who is little more than a plot device herself. This has deep resonance, but archetypes aren't exactly nuanced, and they can be hard for us mere mortals to relate to.

On the other hand, the nice thing about myths is that they're vague enough to fit most people and eras. Aside from some rather obvious swipes at the current war and administration, there's nothing about Apocalypto that could prevent it from becoming an enduring myth, and film making that aspires to the level of visual mythology is a rare thing these days.

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