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Mel Gibson needs pain. You might retort that, lately, he’s made more than enough for himself, but I’m talking only about the pain that feeds his art, not the tabloids.

Two cravings seem to ignite his talent, yet also limit it: the need to imagine the very distant past in all its strangeness, and the urge to portray excruciating physical agony graphically. The blood that drenched The Passion of the Christ certainly made the Nazarene’s self-sacrifice palpable, and Gibson’s refusal to render the ancient world cozily familiar to us was refreshing. However, the incessant brutality became monotonous and, because the brief final scene of resurrection was perfunctory, the movie ended up impacted and sadomasochistic rather than cathartic. The Passion’s real drama took place in the first five minutes when Jesus resisted Satan’s urging him to abjure self-sacrifice. After that, we could only watch him suffer and die for 120 minutes.

The plot of Apocalypto contains no such pitfalls. It is the familiar tale of a good man in the clutches of a cruel foe, of the escape by foot from that foe, of pursuit through a jungle or wilderness (the pursued occasionally striking back at the pursuer with improvised weapons or traps), and of return to safety and loved ones. Think of true frontier narratives like Daniel Boone’s escape from the Shawnees, of the classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” and of that brilliant and...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.