Monday, March 12, 2007


At college, I once picked up a book called "The Celestine Prophecy" that claimed to answer the ultimate question. While it wasn't 42, what piqued my interest was that it claimed to contain extracts from an "ancient Mayan manuscript". The book claimed that the Maya had vanished because they'd migrated to a higher energy plane! Having been fascinated by Mesoamerican civilizations since childhood (thanks to the monthly issues of National Geographic), I was quite disappointed with the book. However, it did make me curious about what really happened to the Maya. Till one day I read an article (in Nat Geo again) that investigated the supposed disappearance of the Maya. The Maya, it said, have not disappeared; they are living peacefully in Mexico and Central America. On Saturday, I realized that Nat Geo hadn't been exaggerating. I'd always assumed that the Maya in the paintings and sculptures were highly stylized - high domed forehead, the distinct curved nose. Watching Apocalypto was like seeing the Maya come alive from the frescoes I looked at in my childhood. But that was the only satisfying thing about Mel Gibson's horrible, horrible movie.

The movie is about the brutal raid and capture of a Mayan village. The women are sold as salves while the men are sent off to be sacrificed to Kulkulcan (who by the way is the Snake God, not the Sun God, though he was worshipped in the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan). An unexpected eclipse offers our hero (Jaguar Paw, love the name!) a chance to escape. He is pursued relentlessly by Zero Wolf, whose son Jaguar Paw has killed. Jaguar Paw is finally cornered, but is saved by the timely arrival of the Spanish (a Cortes-looking guy). Jaguar Paw then escapes to rescue his family from the cave he's hidden them in and moves into the forest to find a new beginning.

The movie begins with Will Durant's quote "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within". True, but not in the way Gibson, an ignorant, insensitive filmmaker thinks it is. The movie suggests that by the time that Cortes arrived, the Maya were on the verge of decline due to their own excesses. The Spanish reached Mexico sometime in the 16th century, while it has been established that the Mayan empire declined by the late 8th/ early 9th century (possibly due to a decline in trade routes).

The Maya were a highly advanced civilization, astronomy being one of their highest accomplishments. Gibson's plot device of an unexpected eclipse that scares the high priest and the king (impressive headgear) is therefore downright laughable. The Maya did have barbaric customs. I remember reading about ritual bloodletting, which included the members of royal family and other nobles piercing tongues, navels and genitals in order to appease the gods. However, the Maya did not practice mass sacrifice. In most cases, the people sacrificed were conquered enemy rulers and their important nobility. While other Mesoamerican civilizations did practice mass sacrifice, there is no record of the Maya doing the same. The scenes of heads tumbling down the steps of the pyramid before they are caught in nets and set on stakes are not only in poor taste, but grossly inaccurate.

As the captives are led to be slaughtered, we get glimpses of the city - pestilence is taking over and people are starving to death, streets are covered with filth, thieves abound, people fight over money like dogs...give me a break! If you are showing an ancient city at the peak of its glory, at least show it some respect.

Verdict- Total crap. Only positive was that I got a glimpse of the Maya, albeit grossly misrepresented!


Venky said...

Wow, diviya, that's a really nice review. Will certainly give the movie a miss:-) You can certainly consider an alternate career as film critic!! When you can do visit
...will hopefully update it soon.

CYCO said...

Somehow my instincts told me not to watch this move... I am glad I listened to them...I probably would have felt the same way since I have a high opinion regarding the Mayan civilization, even though I don't know much...

ahiri said...

sound review !!!atta girl !

N said...

Hi, Venky told me about your blog...nice review. Completely agree with you and right now, I can't help hating Mel Gibson. Apparently, at some conference, a lady asked him some questions about this. He abused her saying 'fuck off, lady' and then had her thrown out.

Do drop in at my blog some time: