Apocalypto (2006, Mel Gibson)
Can we separate the art from the artist? The movie from the moviemaker? Mel Gibson is clearly, at the very least, a massive twat with some deeply offensive views. He’s also a solid actor with a limited range but a reasonable amount of charisma. Far more significant than his acting ability, however, is his talent behind the camera – he’s a bloody brilliant film director.
That last statement is based purely on the strength of Apocalypto. I’ve tried to watch The Man Without A Face, Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ (which has faced accusations of anti-Semitism) but am yet to see any of them through to the end credits. Apocalypto, on the other hand, held me in its grasp from first moment to last. It’s one of the best films of the 2000s. Had this film been made by an established art house director (Werner Herzog, say) no one would hesitate to call it a masterpiece.
But could/would anyone else have made this bonkers work of art? Gibson used the profits from The Passion of the Christ to fund a $40 million epic about tribespeople in 16th century Central America, with dialogue in the language Yucatec Maya (gracias, Wikipedia), and, unsurprisingly, no stars. At first glance, you’d assume it’s a worthy foreign language historical drama. It’s not. It’s a full-on-relentless-hardcore-fuck-you action film.
The hero is Jaguar Paw. (That name kills me.) His village gets raided and he and many others are taken to a Mayan temple to be sacrificed. (There is some controversy about the historical accuracy of this.) Jaguar Paw has to escape and get back to his pregnant wife and son, who are stuck down a well.
Gibson stages more thrilling and imaginative action scenes than in all the Lethal Weapon films put together. He also combines the kinetic with the beautiful; this film is full of memorable images, many coming on top of one another in the (no hyperbole) astonishing climax. I won’t describe these shots in detail – I could never do them justice.
So, we have a masterpiece made by a twat. Does this make me uncomfortable? A little. In the same way I feel a twinge every time I watch a Woody Allen (and there’s a lot of them). But if we only consumed culture by people whose ideology and behaviour we approved off, we’d doubtless be left with some pretty dull stuff. If only Aung San Suu Kyi could start making films…
Apocalypto is showing tonight, 10.50pm BBC 2 (Hopefully it’ll come on the iPlayer)