Mayan madness

It is roundabout the year 1500. Somewhere deep in the jungles of Central America lies the happy little village of Unpronounceable. The men of the village spend their time hunting, joshing about tapir testicles and playing practical jokes involving genitals and chillies on one another.
The women ... well, we don’t know what the women spend their time doing, other than having babies or complaining that they aren’t having enough babies.

Into this tropical idyll bursts a crew of Mayan marauders, intent on kidnapping some villagers for human sacrifice or, if they don’t measure up, retail at the slave market. This capture involves a lot of throat-slitting, skull-crunching violence, with weeping children thrown in, and then a tortuous forced march. The Mayans are having some agricultural troubles, so they need extra human sacrifices this week.

Luckily, our hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), is saved from sacrifice by that old standby of the bad storyteller, coincidence. Next thing he is on the run, heading back to his village, pursued by a bunch of Mayan sadists led by the evil Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), who has obviously been doing a lot of working out at the local ziggurat-gym and is clearly crazed on herbal steroids.

Such is the plot of Apocalypto, directed by that old joker Mel Gibson. Historians, archaeologists and descendants of the Maya have already objected strenuously to his version of the facts about the Maya, and it’s hard to see why he chose to set this action thriller in that era or locale, except that it provides him with a set of bloodthirsty villains even more heinous than the Jews.

The depiction of the Mayan city and its gory rituals is impressive, but we’re not told anything significant about the culture, so the film is useless on that level. Apart from the setting, Apocalypto is a collection of action clichés enlivened only by the increasingly ingenious ways people get killed. Certainly, this is a gorefest to rival The Passion of the Christ in its leering pleasure at icky violence. But it has emotion, too! In a transparently manipulative attempt to ratchet up the tension, Jaguar Paw’s child and pregnant wife have spent all this time hiding in a deep pit that is steadily filling up with water.

At over two hours, Apocalypto feels like it takes centuries to unfold. The fact that it is all in some version of whatever 16th-century Mayans spoke renders it more preposterous rather than more believable. And what the hell is the title supposed to mean? Oh, I see—it’s a Mayan word derived from the old Greek name for the last book of the Bible, which means “revelation”. They were very clever and well-informed, those Mayans. Even if they were a bunch of blood-

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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