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Five Hearts

"He blocked out the effing sun!"

Written by Steven Walker

It is very hard to dissect this film without dealing with the baggage that comes with it. I can’t help but think that it would have been heralded as a masterpiece if it had come out five years earlier. I vividly remember the public discussion and the reviews that surrounded this film. The talking points were not about the immaculate costuming and makeup, the lavish attention to historical detail, or the riveting sense of being transported to another time. The conversation was almost entirely about how this was Mel Gibson’s follow up to the Passion of the Christ. The stigma of that film and Gibson’s tarnished public image overshadowed everything that is great about this movie.

Many critics asked why Gibson would bother going to the unbelievable effort of resurrecting the long-dead Mayan culture in such a brutally believable way and only use it to make a fairly routine chase movie. I hear this complaint and I see it when I watch the film, but damnit I just don’t care when the chase is this good.  There are some ridiculously great, visceral action moments in this movie that prove just how stupid the weightless, wire-fu fights of many modern action movies have become.  Plus, Mel Gibson made his name on action movies far less skillful than this.  I also can’t fault Gibson for choosing a simple story that is easy to follow in a movie set entirely within an Extinct Culture That Doesn’t Speak English! Some people are just haters.

Anyway, I read a lot of hyperbole regarding the extreme violence depicted in the film before I saw it. Since I have an overactive imagination and am something of a gorehound, what I imagined when reading was nowhere near matched in the movie. The human sacrifice scene was almost tasteful.  Frankly I was disappointed and thought the violence in Passion of the Pretentious was far more disturbing.

Speaking of human sacrifice…it’s still an amazing scene.  It scathingly deconstructs organized religion, an irony I find delicious in light of Passion of the High Horse. I’m left having no idea what Mel Gibson actually believes and I kind of like that. Maybe he really is crazy.

So the Mayan priests stage this elaborate ceremony, gleefully offing the slaves from the villages they just overran, and really get the crowd into it. They know the eclipse is coming and they have it all rehearsed. It’s a magnificent bit of smoke and mirrors that perfectly illustrates how a piece of dangerous knowledge put in devious minds can enslave an entire culture. If you or I were one of the ignorant villagers who witnessed this, how could we not believe? I’d rush out and tell all my buddies, “Holy shit, dude! That god those priests been talking about is like, totally real! No, dude, you don’t understand…he blocked out the effing sun!”

Also, I find the finale of the chase to be electrifying. When they hit the beach and stop dead in their tracks at the sight of the European ship, it sends chills up my spine. I love that Jaguar Paw knows to take his new family and get the hell out of dodge. I love how he understands that the westerners are going to do to the Mayans exactly what the Mayans did to his culture.

Now I do have to admit a slightly more personal connection to the film that may color my perception. In December 2009, I served as Production Designer on a very low budget martial arts film called “Beatdown.”  This movie stared Rudy Youngblood…Jaguar Paw himself.  He was a fascinating guy who was very nice, very professional, and unassuming. He is a small fellow who seems almost harmless until he has reason to move fast at which point you realize he is a coiled snake. It was inspiring to watch him film his fight scenes because he really threw himself into it. We were shooting brutally long 16 hour days and he was doing intensely physical work for most of that time. I can’t imagine how exhausted he must have been. Seeing his commitment as a performer and hearing a lot of stories from the set of Apocalypto sent my appreciation for the film through the roof. Apparently the authenticity on screen is earned though a good deal of suffering on the part of a very dedicated cast and crew.

I find that each time I watch it I become more immersed in it.  I definitely think the public was unreceptive to it for the wrong reasons, and I encourage anyone who avoided it to give it chance.

 

 

 

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