To me, the history of pre-conquistadorical America is one of the most interesting in the field of world history. The reasons are mainly two: (1) The limited amount of source material available, which makes the life of the indigenous people, and the great civilizations forever enigmatic. (2) The fact that the peoples of the new world were almost the only ones who had not been subjected to European influence up until 1500. Their world view, customs and cultures were completely independent of our thinking.
The three known, large civilizations were those of the Inkas, the Aztecs and the Mayas. The two latter situated (mainly) in contemporary Mexico, and of those, we're (allegedly) looking into the eve of the Mayan society in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. Like in his manipulative and anti-narrative The Passion of the Christ, his new film takes use of the local (almost extinct) languages to present his narrative - which is admirable, and helps bring us closer to the spirit of the people and the time. Impressive are also the group of largely unknown and unprofessional actors and actresses Gibson has assembled. Lead by a talented Rudy Youngblood, they provide Apocalypto with a fresh and authentic feel. As opposed to his previous film, Apocalypto is concerned with characters and motivation. The film is first and foremost an engaging adventure thriller, not unfamiliar with genre conventions, but able to use them to its advantage. Like with Braveheart, Gibson uses brutality to contrast the simplistic and naturalistic nature of its lead characters, and the opening half of the film is both harrowing and engaging.
Gibson is at his least convincing when the film moves into the Mayan city and uses religious and political allegories to make contemporary comments. Although the scenes are useful in an isolated view, Gibson makes the mistake of presenting the Mayan culture as overly primitive and simplifying the characters in the city. His numerous close-ups of despairing people and symbolic exaggerations become counterproductive.
The film has also been accused of mixing up the Aztec and Mayan cultures. This is hard to prove, but there's little doubt that the timeline is questionable, and the brutal nature and human sacrificing presented were more characteristic for the Aztec civilization. However, if you are willing to accept a few historical inaccuracies, Apocalypto will provide a pulsating, suspenseful and clever closing part. Generally, the film is brilliant as long as Gibson's keeps his cameras and actors in the woods. The many chase sequences manage to remain effective and inventive, and Gibson's lense captures the Mexican nature with awe and delicacy. All in all, Apocalypto represents a return to form for the Aussie filmmaker, and the conclusion, although arguably constructed, is completely satisfactory.