His personal troubles have endeared him to nobody, but Mel Gibson doesn't seem to have let them affect his film-making. Few other period movies would dare to deploy unknown actors and dialogue exclusively couched in Mayan, and fewer still would get away with it. Apocalypto begins in a deceptively innocent key, conjuring a prelapsarian world of noble hunters who make jokes about impotence and the mother-in-law (yes, they had them even then).
Then all hell breaks loose as a young brave, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), and his tribe are attacked, enslaved and delivered into the fearsome clutches of a sun-worshipping cult. Their hapless bewilderment on arriving at the cult's stone-built temple has a genuine shiver of dread, which turns to outright horror once we realise what fate has in store for Jaguar Paw and his people.
The story, which gradually evolves into a long chase thriller, is modestly scaled, but the violence is dizzyingly savage: if you didn't already know it from Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, here is a director obsessed with evisceration. Whatever such mauling and mangling and skewering might say about Gibson's psychopathology, you'd have to admit that he stages it with bravura skill and stealth. The scene in which the terrifying Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and his unmerry men prepare, Olympic-style, to execute the "surplus" victims is breathtaking, and slightly reminiscent of the Gestapo dispatching Resistance fighters in Melville's L'Armée des Ombres. There is something poetic, too, in the way that Jaguar Paw counters his pursuers by the unlikeliest means - frogs, bees, trees, even jumping waterfalls - and you will cheer him all the way.