Apocalypto: This Time It's The Mayans
By Noel Vera

Dir: Mel Gibson (2006)

I hope there isn't anyone out there who still clings desperately to the belief that The Passion of the Christ isn't a hate-filled, anti-Jewish snuff movie. Despite the evidence--Gibson basing his script not on the Bible (as he claims) but on the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich (allegedly Emmerich's--there's a possibility that German poet Clemens Brentano forged them), who at one point confidently wrote that Jews fed on the blood of Christian babies; despite his portraying Jews as sinister, avaricious, bloodthirsty (True, Christ, his mother, and Simon are exceptions, but in Gibson's mind, they aren't Jews--they're really early Christians)--the few cries of protest were drowned out by the hysterical wave of love shown the picture in Manila.


And then the drunk-driving incident. Oh my, how inconvenient - in vino veritas, and all that. Fanatical viewers may refuse to remove the redwood log jammed in their eyes, but the photo of Gibson grinning drunkenly from his arrest photo seems to have taken most of the wind out of their enthusiasm.

That said, I wouldn't count out Apocalypto being a hit, or at least making some money; Filipinos are forgiving, they love handsome Hollywood stars, especially Oscar-winning Hollywood stars, and they love it that Gibson's a Catholic (ignoring the inconvenient fact that Gibson belongs to a hardcore sect (more a hate group, actually) that considers the Vatican popes - John Paul II, the present Pope Benedict - heretics, and refuses to recognize the reforms of Vatican II). The movie is subtitled, true (the actors speak Q'eqchi' Mayan, albeit with a heavily Yucatan diction), but has low comedy, non-stop action, and a generous helping of Neolithic violence, including jaguar face-ripping and mass open-heart surgery. What's not to like?

Plenty, as it turns out. The action is basically second-rate George Miller (who directed the two films that made Gibson internationally famous, Mad Max and The Road Warrior) without Miller's sense of poetry or grandeur; much of the climactic chase sequence is cribbed from the 1966 The Naked Prey (though some elements--jumping off a waterfall, the various guerilla style traps--are borrowed from the more recent The Last of the Mohicans and First Blood)--hardly innovative fare.

The sadistic pranks that open the movie would have been rejected by Tito, Vic and Joey for being too crude and obvious (and--cardinal sin--not half as funny); the family life our hero Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) enjoys is idyllic to the point of embarrassing (not to mention Youngblood and the actress who plays his young wife Seven, Dalia Hernandez, seem to have been chosen more for physical beauty than ethnic authenticity [Youngblood is a Native American from the Northwest]).

When Zero Wolf (Raul Trujillo) raids the village for human sacrifices and slaves, Wolf and company have sinister faces that contrast sharply with Paw and family's softer, younger features (subtle, complex characterization is not a strong Gibson skill, apparently); the raiders, in effect, bear startling resemblance to the evil Jews that killed Christ in Gibson's previous picture. 

The pregnant Seven and her son manage to hide, albeit in the most dangerous location possible: a sunken cave that floods at the least excuse (Pregnant wife in pit in peril of drowning--anyone notice how corny Gibson can get?). Paw and company are dragged away to witness the horrors of Mayan civilization--which brings us to one of my biggest complaints about the movie: the first-ever major Hollywood feature on Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and what does Gibson show us? Grotesque slave-raiding, heart-ripping decadent imperialists who deserve to decline and be conquered.

Never mind that the architecture and art is a mishmash of Mayan civilization from different periods and locations, with a few Aztec details thrown in; never mind that a sick girl appears to have smallpox, which had been brought to the continent by the Conquistadors (Gibson's vaunted obsession with authenticity is all hype; in The Passion of the Christ he has the Roman soldiers speak Latin, when 1) most of them weren't even Italian, and 2) they spoke Greek--the lingua franca of the time). The overall impression of the Mayans and their proudest accomplishments--their cities and civilization--is overwhelmingly negative.

And mostly wrong. No, Mayans who lived in the jungle would not have been astonished at the huge Mayan buildings--most lived not more than fifteen miles away, and were hardly isolated (they belonged to a political unit, and participated in active trade). No, Mayans would not have been startled at the sight of a solar eclipse--they were expert astronomers. No, the Mayans didn't just roam about kidnapping people for sacrifice; the sacrifices were often picked from the nobility, possibly proud to have been chosen.

No, the Mayans did not perform massacres, resulting in Killing Fields-type mass open graves (the Aztecs did--massacres, I mean--but accusing the correct civilization of genocide is apparently not a priority for the man). No, the Mayans did not keep rotting corpses near fields of crop--they knew better, were master agriculturalists, and in some ways were more skilled than their European contemporaries (witness the sad history of corn imported into Europe). And what's with compressing the fall of the cities (which happened after 900 AD) with the coming of the Spaniards in 1500 AD? It's like Paw ran through three or four hundred years of Mayan history in a few nights. 

The last detail may seem like an innocent anachronism, but it's easily the most insidious.

One might say Gibson was doing a Lord of the Flies-type metaphor, equating Paw's struggle against the Mayan cities with the Mayan's coming struggle against the Europeans; or, and this has the more disturbing implications, that the Mayans were so thoroughly rotten to the core they deserved conquest and conversion to Christianity by the Spaniards. That's just the kind of reasoning used by the Guatemalan Army to justify the horrific massacre of Mayan Indians in their 35-year genocidal civil war. Gibson has no real blood on his hands - yet. Did he really want to dip his hands into this particular bucket?

Easy to point to Paw and his tribe as evidence of a less chuckleheaded viewpoint (Mayans, they evil)--but they're romanticized primitives, innocents who are not part of and ultimately walk away from a doomed Mayan society (just as Christ and Mary in Passion walk away from doomed Jewish society). 

It's the hate, finally, that bothers me. Not so much the violence, though you can't help but notice how Gibson loves to insert that pause, that extra second--the better to see, say, a beating heart squirt blood, or a jaguar's teeth tear the skin off someone's face (Gibson loves variety in his bloodletting, but it's a callow kind of variety, not a means to some more profound end, unlike say the violence in Scorsese, Ferrara or Woo (filmmakers--artists, really--with a Catholic bent)).

Why all this malice focused on a people, with such urgency that he gets basic details of his calumny wrong? Did Gibson think that by choosing a long dead civilization he would (unlike what happened with the Jewish community) escape criticism? If so, he's dead wrong; there are plenty of Mayan descendants living in Mexico and Central America, and they're already unhappy with the movie (perhaps he's not totally unaware; the movie's slated to show in Guatemala only this year, after he's collected box office receipts from the rest of the world).

A final point: Gibson seems to be establishing a pattern here: pick an ethnic group, preferably dark-skinned, do cursory and often slipshod research on them (he got the weapons, the cool tattoos and piercings right, I'll give him that), then create some kind of sadomasochistic scenario that demonizes said ethnicity so that the audience has no choice but to hate, hate, hate. What if he should turn his malignant eye in our direction, suddenly decide to make a major Hollywood movie about the Philippines--a race of savage dogeaters capering about, wielding weaponlike yo-yos and having wild orgies while the noble Spaniards come sailing in just in time to civilize us, Christianize us? I'd hate to see the day.

(For more on on the movie, Apocalypto: Caligula of the Yucatan has a comprehensive summary of Gibson's factual distortions, plus links to other helpful articles)

Note: First published in Businessworld, 02/02/07.
Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@hotmail.com

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February 9 , 2007