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Can 'Apocalypto' rise above scandal?

With early reviews lauding the audacity and innovation of Mel Gibson's bloody Mayan epic, Apocalypto, Hollywood's community of Oscar voters may face a dilemma: Will they consider the film for an Academy Award?

After Gibson's drunken tirade against Jews this summer, many in Hollywood swore - publicly and privately - that they would not work with him again or see his movies.

But that was before the critics began to weigh in on Apocalypto.

Gibson wrote, directed, produced and financed the film, much as he did The Passion of the Christ, his surprise 2004 blockbuster.

Apocalypto is as different from a typical Hollywood film as Gibson's last one: It features unrelenting, savage violence, is told in an obscure language and uses many nonprofessional actors with a primitive look born far from Hollywood.

"Apocalypto is a remarkable film," Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety. "The picture provides a trip to a place one's never been before, offering hitherto unseen sights of exceptional vividness and power."

"Gibson has made a film of blunt provocation and bruising beauty," Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone. "Say what you will about Gibson, he's a filmmaker right down to his nerve endings."

Other reviewers allowed themselves to psychoanalyze Gibson even as they praised the film.

In a mixed review in the Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt observed that Gibson "knows how to make a heart-pounding movie; he just happens to be a cinematic sadist."

The rising tide of generally positive, if qualified, reviews poses a problem for Hollywood insiders, many of whom would prefer to ignore Gibson entirely, despite his formal apology and trip to rehab.

Can the 5,830 voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences ignore a film that may be considered by critics to be among the best of the year?

The problem posed by Gibson touches on the issue of whether an artist's personal behavior ought to be a factor in judging his or her work.

The question is not a new one even in the brief history of cinema, which includes people like D.W. Griffith, the visionary feature director whose work fed racist stereotypes; Leni Riefenstahl, whose ground-breaking talent served Nazi Germany; and Roman Polanski, who in 1977 pleaded guilty to having sex with a minor and then fled the country, which did not prevent him from winning the Oscar for best director in 2003 for The Pianist.

With Apocalypto, Disney has taken a low-key approach to the Oscars, awaiting a general sense from critics and influential voices in Hollywood. But as the film has been gathering critical support, executives at the studio have begun to refer to the film as their Million Dollar Baby, the small movie directed by Clint Eastwood that came from behind two years ago to win best picture at the Oscars.

"From Day 1, we'd hoped that people would judge the movie on its artistic merits and judge Mel as a director," said Dennis Rice, a Disney studio spokesman.

"We believe they'll separate their feelings of Mel the man from Mel the artist."

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