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Gibson's stunning vision of the end

You might as well see Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto." It's a stunner, one of the more amazing movies of 2006, to be sure. At the very least, his brutal jungle adventure about the savage end of Mayan civilization is about as unexpected as a movie could be in this era.

Forget political correctness and Gibson's famous penchant for drunken and volcanic bigotry. If every anti-Semitic artist were to suddenly become verboten everywhere, no one would ever read a poem by T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound or look at a painting by Edgar Degas. It goes without saying that no one would ever listen to Richard Wagner's music (which Leonard Bernstein, bless him, famously conducted in Israel). If the films of every fabled nasty-mouthed drunk who ever lived in Hollywood were on the proscribed list, you'd have to start with the complete works of Sam Peckinpah and John Ford.

Artists -- great ones and not-so-great ones -- aren't paragons of anything, and certainly not virtue. In fact, their personal distinction -- if they ever have one at all -- is to be just like the rest of us, only more so. And that certainly applies to "flawed."

You have to overlook Gibson's lunacies, just as so many of us critics have to overlook the bird flipped by the Disney publicity department, which refused to show the film to most critics in advance. What no one can overlook is the film's bloodthirstiness, which is everywhere in evidence.

Some might be forgiven, in fact, if "Apocalypto" seems at times made for those who thought "Braveheart" too civilized and those who thought "The Passion of the Christ" too sparing. Mortification and violation of the flesh is part of what Gibson likes to put on-screen.

He refuses to be sparing about the horrors men are capable of. Here is a man capable of putting on-screen a child wielded by a warrior as a kind of club.

But then nobody else could have made "Apocalypto." No one would have let them. It's a genuine film vision, a truly savage but also breathlessly exciting adventure movie about an arrogant and advanced civilization about to perish of its own barbarism. And if that seems like Mel the Thinker's prescription for American doom, I wouldn't doubt it.

You don't have to buy any of it to marvel at this tale of a jungle tribe massacred and enslaved by the Mayans, only to be sacrificed wholesale to the gods from atop those pyramids, which now cause us to marvel at their "advanced" stage of civilization.

To be frank, there were many who expected this movie to be as startling and original as it is. It was renowned as being something of a "tough sell" long before his tequila-fueled adventure with the Malibu cops.

After it, all bets were off. And more's the pity.

Specifically, it's about a tribal husband and wife -- a jungle warrior called Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez). They live in a supposedly idyllic existence where a lot of rough-hewn practical jokes involve a tapir's testicles and genital-inflaming balms. Until, that is, their tribe-mates are slaughtered and held captive by the Mayans, whose cruelties have to be seen to be believed.

Everything happens to these two and their young son. They are equal to all of it.

She can figure out how to use red ants as medicine for her son's gashed leg. He can survive spears through the kidneys and the clavicle to come back and rescue them both.

Some of the imagery is indeed jaw-dropping. (And, so too, some is epically horrifying.)

The result of Gibson's neo-primitivism -- after an ungainly first half-hour -- is extraordinary to see. He's a truly gifted filmmaker who manages to survive inside the head and body of one of the most errant and tormented men ever to achieve his level of fame in America.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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>Movie Review

Apocalypto

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of four)

Rated: R

For sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images. Mel Gibson?s epic about a refugee from the savagery and cruelty at the end of Mayan civilization. Starring Dalia Hernandez, above left, and Rudy Youngblood, above right. Opened Friday in area theaters.

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