UCSB’s Maya Expert Anabel Ford Digests Mel Gibson’s New Flick
By Anabel Ford
On a need-to-know basis as a Maya archaeologist, I joined the full theater-opening weekend in Santa Barbara of Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson. What I found was a display of Hollywood action with gratuitous violence, just what all the reviews had either lauded or warned. The plot theme was simple: the classic hero, the evil villain, and the damsel in distress, but with a macabre conjurings set against a backdrop that purports to be of the Maya world. And here the imagination is stifled by the European model of life in the tropical forest, where it is either verdant or devastated, and a degenerate civilization, where regal women fan themselves while powerful men abuse others.
Nominated for the Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language by the International Press Academy Satellite Awards and is included in the same category for the Golden Globe Awards, native Yucatecan Mayan speakers can barely comprehend the dialog and it is doubtful that this film would carry currency among the monolingual Maya. Dr. Francisco Rosado-May — the agro-ecologist rector of the new Maya Intercultural University and descendant of the famed rebel leader General Francisco May — applauds the good intentions to attempt dialog in his native tongue, but “except for two actors — the elderly storyteller and the afflicted child — the language is very stilted, difficult to understand, ungrammatical and with a thick foreign accent.” I guess that the best motion picture in a foreign language does not have to resonate among their speakers. It will be next year when it opens south of the border anyway.
The movie is paced to keep your attention rapt and in this it was overkill. While ostensibly set somewhere among the Maya evidently at the eve of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, none of the details add up. National Geographic Digital Media claims that the action movie “takes place in the Classic Period (AD250-900)… modeled on Preclassic Mirador as well as the Classic city of Tikal.” The city scenes are indeed intriguing offering a glimmer of the potentials of film creativity, but they are brief and only a sidebar to the mayhem. A mix-and-match hodge-podge of the grotesque myths of Mesoamerica extracted from the earliest Maya to the conquest Aztec, historical accuracy is not evident. Yet Gibson is quoted saying his archaeologist consultant Dr. Richard Hansen was able to “make us feel secure that what we were writing had authenticity.” Hansen, whose work at Mirador is supported by National Geographic, says that Gibson went to extreme lengths to bring the ancient world to life and providing “an opportunity to see what it would look like originally.”
Apocalypto’s screenwriter Farhad Safinia, following Gibson’s lead, says the film intends to draw parallels to our own civilization with “widespread environmental degradation, excessive consumption, and political corruption.” If this story was going to be a reflection on our own times as with Jared Diamond’s Collapse, this may be the real problem in understanding the Maya as their collapse may not have anything to do with these matters.
Received wisdom has it that the destruction of the Maya forest today is a result of the same disregard for the environment as in the past, but ecologists and botanists working with local Maya have learned the Maya forest as replete with economic value barely hinted at in the film. Chocolate, vanilla, and allspice are from the Maya forest as are avocado, mahogany, and chicle. In fact 90 percent of the dominant plants are useful to humanity and traditional Maya farmers have the most diverse domestic systems in the world. The Maya forest is a wild garden left by the past cultivators and this is an area where imagination could really help. (Photo of Maya forest garden by Macduff Everton.)
Casual conversations in the theater indicated that those awaiting this show were there to see a Gibson film. The trailers that took the initial 15 minutes were all emphatic with violence, suggesting themes of hostility and bloodshed have captivated American audiences. Apocalypto was at the top of the weekend’s box office charts. Perhaps this is the metaphor of today’s society.