Thursday, December 14, 2006

Apocalypto of a film

(Don't worry: I can't spoil something for you if it's already rotten.)

My wife and I are heading to Merida, Yucatan for a week, so I checked out Mel Gibson's movie. You might too, but you'll have to decide which reason to see it for.

There is a good story: an aboriginal Veracruzeño (Rudy Youngblood, aka Gonzalez), whose village is raided by the "civilized" Mayas, is the hero who defies all odds to play a role in fulfilling the prophecy hanging over the Mayas. The Mayas are depicted as proactive coyotes recruiting for those massive sacrifices Euro-American anthropologists have made famous. Youngblood's portion might be the only good reason to see the flick, other than the cinematography.

You could see it for lots of costumes, customs, bodypainting and that seem to ring of genuine. The subtitles are benign, and I quickly accepted the Mayan lingo, except for a little jolt from "fucked" in a subtitle.

But don't go see this if you want to know about the Mayas because you're watching a Gibson depiction of them. You definitely know this when the Mayas use a sacred ball court to turkey-shoot, in the back, some of the aborigines. If Gibson had done this in Braveheart, the English would have executed the rebellious Scots in the chapel of Westminster Abbey.

The Maya lords are just as cut-throat as Braveheart's English lords; the aborigines are promised freedom if they make it through the ball court, but when Rudy Y does, they decide there is no honor among Americans, not even native ones, and they proceed to chase him down.

Despite the genuine feel of much of the Maya city, it is more a clone of London back then, than of Tenochtítlan. Cortez's historians marveled at the Aztec capital's cleanliness, partially attributable to its clay system of plumbing, unheard of in Europe. I'm prone to think the Mayas would have adopted Aztec plumbing rather than importing London squalor, but Gibson preferred to concoct an image of Maya urban filth, like the thousands of bodies of sacrificial victims he deposits right outside the city. Millions of flies that aren't in the film would have made this a bad idea for any suburb, but apparently not for some of our ancestors.

Almost all the Mayas, including the royalty, are filthy. Yeah, they're pretty, painted, wearing quetzal feathers and all, but they live in the midst of filth. Although we know Braveheart's real English didn't bathe, that royalty at least looked clean on film. Not in Apocalyto. This royal family, priests, etc. are covered in blood, soot, ash, and sloppy body paint. It's Gibson's take on a pre-Columbian version of greaser.

In keeping with the title, film's Maya city is a caricature of present-day USA blight. Jungles clear-treed to make yeso for Maya buildings, the smog of the Maya marketplace and industry, the dust of its commercialization, and the congestion of overpopulation all make you wonder why the Spanish ever would have bothered conquering the Mayas. This "realistic" portrayal of Maya civilization's collapse (which happened hundreds of years before the film's chronology) reminds me more of Disney's historical revisionism, putting Gibson in the camp of anti-immigrant crazies.

Stereotypical Chicano-Latino threads are everywhere. My "favorite" is the macho theme exemplified when a Maya lord cuts his son's swollen eye with an obsidian knife, ala Rocky Balboa "Cut me,"-fashion. Whereas in Braveheart Gibson flinched while being tortured, this macho doesn't even flinch. Makes you wonder how we ever lost the continents.

1. A head priest incites the Maya common people over the thousands of sacrifices to appease Kukulcan--akin to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, who was not partial to human sacrifice--his speech coinciding with a solar eclipse. As the moon obscures the sun, the priest and Maya king exchange the most conniving sneers, as if to say the masses fell for it again.

Thus, the Maya spirituality-world outlook, intrinsically linked to their astronomical studies, is reduced by Gibson to quackery and transparent tools of repression.

2. Gibson likewise reduces the Maya's glorious architectural achievements to serving only as stone gallows.

3. Finally, Gibson reduces great Maya artwork like the Bonampak murals to death-row graffiti.

Hopefully, Gibson's cinematic denigration and malfeasance, at least regarding the greatest Maya cultural achievements, will be chiseled onto his tombstone.

Rudy Ch. Garcia


Inez said...

thanks for the post--
I had planned on passing and this convinces me. Gibson's got some issues. He should figure them out OFF screen

msedano said...

interesting review. something i haven't seen in other reviews is your contrasting the scottish movie with the american one.

una pregunta: why are chicanas and chicanos all hot to trot over this movie, it's not like we have any proprietorship over this history, do we?

Manuel Ramos said...

Good question, Michael. Gente is excited to see the movie -- is it a hope that maybe some of the history will be corrected (which apparently did not happen)?

Anonymous said...

I think it's fucking heinous. Rudy, excellent review.

Anonymous said...

Well, actually, Gibson is mostly right. Tenochtitlan was indeed very clean and the conquistadores were mesmerized by the Aztec city. But there were less than impressed with Mayan cities and Mayan culture, such as ritual cannibalism and fascination with sacrifice and all-things-blood; priests used to skin people alive and wear their skin, in front of them. Let's not confuse Mayan and Aztec cultures. By the time of Cortez' arrival, the Aztecs were at their peak but the Mayans were already in serious decline. There are some incongruities in the murals (or other minute details) but let's not go nuts. The movie is accurate enough for its purpose. Let's just say it's not less accurate than any other "historical" movie out there. Mayans had some great scientific knowledge, especially in Astronomy, but so what? This is not a movie about the Mayan advances in science. It's a chase, end-of-civilization movie. When they filmed "the Godfather", should they have reminded us of all the great scientific inventions of Italian-Americans? Would that be relevant to the story-telling? Is the goal here to show the Mayan civilization in its best light, or to show what -most likely- the captured hero would see of it. Go see the movie, make up your own mind. Seems pretty accurate to me.

Anonymous said...

Dirt, filth, blood, violence,terror, decadence--that's a portrait of the chaos inside Mel Gibson's mind. It doesn't matter where he sets his movies, all he's really doing is projecting the incredible disturbance inside of himself onto the screen again and again. And it gets uglier with each picture--you have to wonder how he'll "top" this new one.

Anonymous said...

Hola I found a middle-aged white woman's comment interesting; "Why I loved it, of course it was phoney over the top, but the key story of survival was good, and so was seeing all those strong brown-skinned men" I say anyone (raza included)wanting a film dealing with Mayan people that is sensitive to the native culture should hunt down a DVD copy of "CHAC", does anyone have anything critical to say about CHAC: the Rain God was released in 1974, it was filmed in Chiapas by Chilean director Rolando Klein it's 94 min. color and LA Times said it was "Suspensful. hypnotic...lush, exotic beauty."