For all its merits, "The Passion of the Christ" was an extremely brutal film. But director Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" (Touchstone) actually surpasses that movie's violence. Yet despite the troubling amount of blood that pervades almost every scene, the ambitious cinematic work demonstrates Gibson's talent as a filmmaker to tell a story through strong visuals.
Set in 15th-century Central America -- at the twilight of the Mayan civilization -- and using a cast of indigenous actors speaking entirely in Mayan dialects, the tale chronicles the desperate odyssey of a jungle tribesman, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), to get back to his family after he and other members of his tribe are taken captive by their ruling neighbors, following the massacre of his village.
Before being captured, he hides his very pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son in a pit, where they are threatened by starvation, drowning and vicious monkeys.
The prisoners are marched to a thriving metropolis by the raiding party's leader, Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), and his sadistic second-in-command, Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios). There, Jaguar Paw and the others are herded up a pyramid temple to be killed as sacrificial offerings to the local sun god.
Jaguar Paw escapes and takes flight with Zero Wolf and his warriors in pursuit, as the plot kicks into typical jungle chase mode.
While Jaguar Paw's character is fully developed -- his relationships with his wife and father, Flint Sky (Morris Bird), give the action elements emotional traction -- we learn little about the Mayan people beyond their penchant for practical jokes and delight in decapitations.
What Gibson does do impressively is re-create the physical world of the Mayans with its exotic sights and sounds, spectacle and savagery. The intoxicating imagery and human drama, however, are undermined by so much gore that, even if historically accurate, the cumulative result registers as gratuitous.
Gibson has said his film is about "the spark of life that exists even in a culture of death." If he is trying to say something about the self-destructiveness of societies and the role of hope in the cyclical march of civilizations -- and that's not at all clear -- what comes across on-screen is more sanguinary than sanguine.
Despite Gibson's undeniable artistry and serious intent, the relentless barbarity will severely limit the film's appeal.
The film contains intense and graphic violence, including scenes of slaughter, human sacrifice, beheadings and a man being mauled by a jaguar, disturbing images, some sexual humor and innuendo, a suggested marital encounter, partial nudity, an instance of rough language and a few crude expressions. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
These movies have been evaluated for artistic merit and moral suitability by the media reviewing division of Catholic News Service. The reviews include the CNS rating, the Motion Picture Association of America rating, and a brief synopsis of the movie.
The classifications are as follows:
A-I -- general patronage;
A-II -- adults and adolescents;
A-III -- adults;
L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV.
O -- morally offensive.
Note: Some movies previously were designated A-IV. Older films with this classification should be regarded as classified L.