Gibson's 'Apocalypto' Explores Mayan Rites

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Mel Gibson's new film project, set for release in December, has religious overtones. It tracks the life of a man marked for sacrifice among the ancient Mayans. But critics say Apocalypto resembles Braveheart more than The Passion of the Christ.


Just in case you can't live without it, here's your update on the latest news from Mel Gibson. Late last week, the actor screened his new film Apocalypto for a few audiences in Oklahoma and in Texas. At one event, Gibson made a comment slamming the war in Iraq. In doing so, the star generated yet another cycle of publicity - this time, one that might help his latest movie.

NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS: Mel Gibson doesn't appear in Apocalypto, set for release on December 8th, but he co-wrote and directed it. Set in the final days of the Mayan civilization, the film tells the tale of a young man who flees those who have marked him for sacrifice. It is in a Mayan language and subtitled throughout.

(Soundbite of Apocalypto in a foreign language)

MASTERS: Until the past several days, the film had been kept under wraps, as has Gibson himself. Other than issuing statements of apology, the star hasn't granted any interviews since his notorious drunk driving arrest and anti-Semitic outburst in July.

But Saturday night, after showing the movie at a film festival in Austin, Texas, Gibson participated in a question and answer session. There, he is reported to have drawn parallels between the decline of the Mayans and the current situation in the United States. Alluding to his film's portrayal of human sacrifice, Gibson asked, what's human sacrifice? If not sending a bunch of guys off to Iraq for no reason.

Mr. PAUL DERGARABEDIAN (President, Exhibitor Relations): Mel is a one-man publicity machine.

MASTERS: Paul Dergarabedian is a box-office analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

Mr. DERGARABEDIAN: You know, you would think that after all the controversy that happened recently with the DUI stop, that he would shy away from making any other kind of public comments that are controversial.

MASTERS: But, Dergarabedian says, Gibson is once again stirring controversy and attracting attention. And while it might seem that slamming the war in Iraq could inflame conservative Christians - who made Gibson's last movie, the Passion of the Christ, into a global phenomenon - Dergarabedian doesn't think that matters.

Mr. DERGARABEDIAN: Expecting the Christian audience who came out for Passion to come out for any movie is kind of a stretch, because the movie, itself, will still have to have appeal to them. I don't know that, necessarily, they're going to say, well Mel brought us Passion of the Christ, now we're going to go see Apocalypto.

MASTERS: Most Hollywood observers would expect a period movie in an ancient language to have its troubles at the box office. But Gibson's latest moves might, in fact, raise Apocalypto's profile and its grosses.

Matt Dentler programmed the Fantastic Fest in Austin, along with Harry Knowles, founder of the film geek Web site, AintitCool news .com.

Dentler admits that he'd hesitate to criticize Apocalypto since Gibson favored Dentler's fledgling film festival with a screening. But he calls the movie a crackling adventure - comparing it with Gibson's 1995 Oscar-winning film about Scotland in the 13th century.

Mr. MATT DENTLER (Organizer, Fantastic Fest): It really has a great chance of appealing to the same audiences that went for Braveheart in a big way.

MASTERS: Dentler did say Apocalypto was a bit long at more than two hours. But it's a work-in-progress and Gibson plans to make trims. He also said some in the audience commentated on the extreme violence. Politically, Dentler said the film did seem to allude to contemporary issues - though that portion amounted to only a small part of a two-hour plus picture.

Disney is releasing the film, though Gibson paid for it as he did for the Passion of the Christ. And he will certainly decide how best to publicize it. At one time the studio harbored Oscar hopes for Apocalypto. By now, those seem to have faded.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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