The film, believe it or not, is shot entirely with subtitles--using what was purported to be a recreation of a Mayan-type tongue for the film to heighten its realism (though the exact language has been lost). Considering the film was set just before first contact with the Western world, this was a daring but intelligent choice.
The story involves a group of men who are captured and taken to the Mayan capital to be sacrificed. As crops have failed, there is drought and a plague has struck, the Maya are looking to appease their god, Kukulcan (like the Aztec Quetzelcoatl--a dragon capable of swallowing the Earth is he isn't pleased). With scenes involving the sacrifices, the piles of what seem like thousands of bodies and the very violent deaths later in the film, this is definitely NOT a film for sensitive viewers or kids. In fact, I was surprised that this film received only an R-rating, as the violence and carnage was among the most graphic I have ever seen on film and it probably would have been best to rate it NC-17--it's THAT intensely violent and disturbing. These portions of the film are akin to full-color Holocaust footage.
So if the film is SO violent and tough to watch, why did I actually enjoy it? Well, first, I am a history teacher and was amazed at the wonderful attempt to re-create the barbarity of the Mayans as well as the helplessness of the neighboring tribes. Unlike the happy, Earth-loving stereotype we've recently envisioned of the Native Americans, the Maya and Aztecs were truly brutal and blood-thirsty civilizations--responsible for massive ethnic cleansing of smaller tribes through human sacrifice and slavery. While the Conquistadors were awful and greedy (as well as over-idealized in films like CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE),it's awfully tough to feel sorry for these two groups of natives and I am sure nearby tribes also were thrilled to see these cultures destroyed (despite all their pretty cities). It was nice to see the sacrifices ultimately stopped--though they were unfortunately replaced with Spanish genocide and slavery--I guess you can't win 'em all.
Second, even though the film was brutal, the last half of the movie was about the most exciting and tense I have ever seen on film. The prolonged chase scene was brilliantly executed and I simply couldn't stop watching since it captivated me. In many ways it was like prolonging the chase scene from THE FRENCH CONNECTION to an hour instead of 10 minutes! Sure, it was super-violent but at the same time it was super-skilled in its execution and I barely breathed during many of the tensest moments.
So, if you can get past all the gore, then this is a truly amazing and unique film--one you can never forget and one that raises realism to a shocking level. The only reason it didn't earn a 10 from me is that, at times, the realism DIDN'T need to be THAT real and the film just goes to realistic excess.
2/8/08--I just finished watching Cornel Wilde in THE NAKED PREY (1966) and found the plot to be very, very close to Apocalypto--so much so that it seems this latter film is actually a reworking of THE NAKED PREY (which it is also better than, but both films are indeed excellent).