29 November, 2006


An intermission from The Unknown Object—the winnowing-fan next time, I promise!—as I thought this was worth writing about. I attended a preview screening of Mel 'I want his intestines on a stick' Gibson's latest offering, Apocalypto; with me was the Mesoamericanist Pretzel Bender and some members of her department. The film, with its goofy Greek title ('I reveal'), is Gibson's take on the culture of the Late Postclassic Mayans in the Yucatán Peninsula, just before the Spanish invaded (presumably set some time between 1510-1520). The dialogue is completely in Yukatek Maya—so I'm told, though it could be in Swahili for all I know.

At the beginning of the film, instead of the title, Mel quotes pop uber-historian Will Durant that 'A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within'. In other words, the Mayans were goners even before Hernández de Córdoba got there in 1517. The subtext, one suspects, is even less subtle: Goddamn, those barbarous heathens needed Christianity! And barbarous they are: Apocalypto is even more graphically brutal than The Passion. Over the course of 2 hours, various characters are stabbed, shot with an arrow through the mouth, phlebotomised, decapitated, raped, sacrificed, mauled by jaguar, slashed, dashed against rocks, poisoned, near-drowned in quicksand, stung by hornets, clubbed, axed and self-mutilated. One of my party, deeply horrified, described it as 'another snuff flick'. I liked it!

Spoiler warning: Plot details follow.

Basic narrative: peaceful village (of savage animal-hunters) is captured and taken to Chichen Itza to be sacrificed à l'Aztec—think cityfuls of extras baying for heads, jabbering drugged priests, lavish costumes and monumental sets—all completely incorrect, as the academic sneerers next to me proudly pointed out—taciturn hero escapes à la Tintin, and spends the rest of the film running from bloodhungry maniacs à la The Naked Prey.

Spoilers end here.

I know nothing about the history, of course, so its accuracy is unknown to me, and in any event irrelevant. My comrades were doubtful; I couldn't find the Yukatek woman to ask her if the language was authentic. It could hardly be denied, however, that it all seems very real—there's a real flair in the small details and facial expressions, and so much texture. The camera never shies away from the visceral, the sadistic Catholic gaze carried over from The Passion—the hero sheathed in mud, or live ants stuffed in an open wound, or the innumerable piercings and other grotesque ornaments on every face. The chief slaver has human jawbones for epaulettes, a cute touch. It is this unflinching quality, so absent from the usual pussy-hearted blockbusters, that transfixes and enthralls.

Apocalypto is an odd mixture: still firmly rooted in the heroes-and-villains gothicism of his early action-flicks, it also aims at High Art, with a Message. That message, however, is anyone's guess. Near the beginning of the film the village bard tells the assembled throng a fable of man's unconquerable greed, which will one day ruin the earth—this obviously describes the cynical greed of the sacrifice-hunters, but also suggests an anti-American comment, or even an anti-Semitic one, given Mel's notorious outbursts. The Jews, naturally, have always been lucre-mad usurers among men. Apparently Gibson has compared the Mayan practice of human sacrifice to 'sending guys off to Iraq for no reason', which is patently idiotic. So the (urban) Mayans are the evil Americans, right?

But wait. Remember Durant—the Mayans, a corrupt society, have set themselves up for a fall. A fall from the conquering Spaniards, that is. The idea is straight out of Flaubert's Salammbo, a novel about the baroque decadence and internal strife of the Carthaginians in the years before Roman conquest. Flaubert's language, itself proto-Decadent, with its thick description and sensuous metaphor, is something akin to the spectacular spectacular of Apocalypto—and his hindsight view of barbarians priming themselves for a fall is very close to Durant's statement. The problem is this: if we wanted to apply Gibson's picture of 1515 to the present day, what does it most closely resemble? Surely, the Americans invading the Middle East, a mess of violent insurgents. Which puts the Americans in the (positive) role of the Spaniards—God's men bringing salvation to the barbarians. This is brought out in the film's conclusion, which I won't spoil. Another historical analogy might be to the corrupt First Temple Jews carried off into Babylonian captivity—the stepped pyramids of Chichen Itza even suggesting the ziggurats of Babylon. But what sort of comment would that make? The whole thing is a mess, if indeed it is trying to make a Statement at all; it certainly sounds like it is.

Anyway, philosophical qualms aside, it's as good a mainstream picture as you're going to see these days, and if you can stomach copious quantities of graphic violence, I recommend it.


Andrew W. said...

I can't - somewhere along my adolescence I lost the ability to enjoy graphic violence.

It's comedies of remarriage or nothing for me!

Anonymous said...

"stabbbed, shot with an arrow through the mouth, phlebotomised, decapitated, raped, sacrificed, mauled by jaguar, slashed, dashed against rocks, poisoned, near-drowned in quicksand, stung by hornets, clubbed, axed and self-mutilated. One of my party, deeply horrified, described it as 'another snuff flick'. I liked it!"
Very nicely done.
I may skip the film though.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that surprising review! Given Mr. Gibson's recent penchant for boring, ham-fisted polemic, I was going to give this film a miss. Thanks to you, I think I might actually give it a chance instead.

I found your blog through Languagehat. You are reliably infuriating, irritating, and pompous - but always interesting and occasionally compelling. I've become a loyal reader, and I look forward to your next posts.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks... I guess?

Mrs. Lily-Plum Roth said...

I can reliably attest to Mr. Roth's infuriating qualities. Irritation is the sincerest form of sadism, or something like that. However, I absolutely refuse, REFUSE to entertain the notion that my darling ickle sweetie-lambkin is pompous. Sniff.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Wine 'em. Dine 'em. Treat 'em nice. But for heaven's sake folks, don't marry 'em.

Sir G said...

read Flaubert instead. at least thats pretty