by Traci Ardren
A scholar challenges Mel Gibson's use of the ancient Maya culture as a metaphor for his vision of today's world.
With great trepidation I went to an advance screening of "Apocalypto" last night in Miami. No one really expects historical dramas to be accurate, so I was not so much concerned with whether or not the film would accurately represent what we know of Classic period Maya history as I was concerned about the message Mel Gibson wanted to convey through the film. After Jared Diamond's best-selling book Collapse, it has become fashionable to use the so-called Maya collapse as a metaphor for Western society's environmental and political excesses. Setting aside the fact that the Maya lived for more than a thousand years in a fragile tropical environment before their cities were abandoned, while here in the U.S, we have polluted our urban environments in less than 200, I anticipated a heavy-handed cautionary tale wrapped up in Native American costume.
What I saw was much worse than this. The thrill of hearing melodic Yucatec Maya spoken by familiar faces (although the five lead actors are not Yucatec Maya but other talented Native American actors) during the first ten minutes of the movie is swiftly and brutally replaced with stomach churning panic at the graphic Maya-on-Maya violence depicted in a village raid scene of nearly 15 minutes. From then on the entire movie never ceases to utilize every possible excuse to depict more violence. It is unrelenting. Our hero, Jaguar Paw, played by the charismatic Cree actor Rudy Youngblood, has one hellavuh bad couple of days. Captured for sacrifice, forced to march to the putrid city nearby, he endures every tropical jungle attack conceivable and that is after he escapes the relentless brutality of the elites. I am told this part of the movie is completely derivative of the 1966 film "The Naked Prey." Pure action flick, with one ridiculous encounter after another, filmed beautifully in the way that only Hollywood blockbusters can afford, this is the part of the movie that will draw in audiences and demonstrates Gibson's skill as a cinematic storyteller.
But I find the visual appeal of the film one of the most disturbing aspects of "Apocalypto." The jungles of Veracruz and Costa Rica have never looked better, the masked priests on the temple jump right off a Classic Maya vase, and the people are gorgeous. The fact that this film was made in Mexico and filmed in the Yucatec Maya language coupled with its visual appeal makes it all the more dangerous. It looks authentic; viewers will be captivated by the crazy, exotic mess of the city and the howler monkeys in the jungle. And who really cares that the Maya were not living in cities when the Spanish arrived? Yes, Gibson includes the arrival of clearly Christian missionaries (these guys are too clean to be conquistadors) in the last five minutes of the story (in the real world the Spanish arrived 300 years after the last Maya city was abandoned). It is one of the few calm moments in an otherwise aggressively paced film. The message? The end is near and the savior has come. Gibson's efforts at authenticity of location and language might, for some viewers, mask his blatantly colonial message that the Maya needed saving because they were rotten at the core. Using the decline of Classic urbanism as his backdrop, Gibson communicates that there was absolutely nothing redeemable about Maya culture, especially elite culture which is depicted as a disgusting feast of blood and excess.