Friday, July 27, 2018


"Apocalypto" (2006) is an adventure and action movie directed by Mel Gibson which portrays the Mayan civilization myths and decline, and the oppressive rule it had over the surrounding indigenous communities. Gibson takes us to late pre-Columbian Mesoamerica where the Maya empire was located and anxiously waiting for the Apocalypto, a new era in their calendar that is marked with the arrival of the Spanish explorers. Thi movie shows us a different version of colonization which is imposed by the Mayas over smaller communities in Latin America, and which makes the European colonization seem nothing compared with the brutality of human sacrifices and manipulation practiced by the pre-Columbian empire.

The movie is filmed in is full-length in Mayan language and in the tropical jungle of Veracruz and Oaxaca, Mexico, where the community Zapotec developed before the Mayan conquest of their territories. Its plot is built up over myths and legends of the Zapotec culture and historical accounts of the Mayan civilization. The indigenous looking characters speaking ancestral languages, the historical plot, and the jungle and Mayan pyramid sets provide this movie with an extremely realistic atmosphere and a feeling that we are watching an "insider" point of view.

It all starts in the middle of the Mesoamerican rainforest in which a group of indigenous hunt the food for the whole village. With a couple of laughs arose from jokes about the marital life of one of the men, we know that Gibson tried to portray the "normal" life of an indigenous tribe of that time creating feelings of sympathy among the viewers. But then something strange and terrifying happens. Another tribe is migrating because its village has been destroyed. The encounter of the hunter with the tribe migrating in look for a "new beginning" (the meaning of the word Apocalypto) profoundly marks the life of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) who fears the cause of the migration and the end of the world as he knows it. Then the action begins. Jaguar Paw's village is invaded and destroyed by warriors of the Mayan civilization who kill almost all the people and take prisoners the survivors, except for the children. In the middle of this tragic scene, the expressivity shown by the characters while praying to their Gods or accepting their destiny to connect with nature in the afterlife reinforces the imagination of a Latin America that suffers real struggles.

The plot is based on traditions, myths and prophesies of the Mayan culture. However, Gibson chooses only those controversial practices that will boost the drama and suspense of the movie. The most shocking scenes are the destruction of the villages to take war prisoners, the human sacrifice of men on the top of the pyramids, and the use of astrological knowledge by the leaders to manipulate people making them believe fearful of a false God, the sun. The anxieties of the people become stronger when a plague infests them and their crops which is understood by some as the beginning of the end (the Apocalypto), while for others it is just a call by the Gods to render more sacrifices. During one more of these sanguinary rituals, a solar eclipse takes place and it is translated by the shamans into the words of the God Sun that has heard the Mayan petitions after hundreds of sacrifices. This event saves Jaguar Paw to be the next sacrificed man. He manages to escape by getting into the jungle where no guns or fighting skills surpass ancestral knowledge of nature.

The persecuted Jaguar Paw comes back to the destroyed village where he hid his pregnant wife and son. The surviving Mayan soldiers that followed Jaguar to the coast are about to catch him, but the arrival of the Spanish ships steal their attention. Jaguar rescues his family and hides in the middle of the jungle to start "the new beginning".

Gibson portrays a part of Latin America that seems quite realistic. It is hard to think that the level of expressivity and historical accounts involve in this movie are not accurate. It is the same strategy Gibson used to screen the Passion of Christ. From the beginning, this movie divides indigenous into two groups: the good and the bad ones, the sanguinary Mayans and the peaceful jungle inhabitants. The division, however, projects more than the complex history of the Mayan civilization. The interpretation of indigenous culture and traditions portrayed in this movie supports the European colonization that aid by Catholicism, demonized practices such as human sacrifices to the Sun. By showing two different "types" of indigenous from what seems an insider point of view, this movie criticizes unacceptable traditions of a (un)civilized culture.

Apocalypto represents in the movie the end of the Mayan empire, but it is also the beginning of a new one when the Spanish arrived. In the last scene, we see the ships getting close to the Mesoamerican coast and it is when Jaguar Paw finally escapes and decides to hide in the jungle. Gibson finishes this adventure film with airs of a promising future, at least for those communities oppressed by the Mayans. The end is paternalistic towards the indigenous communities (Did they need help to survive the Mayan rule?) and reflects the coloniality of justifying in some extent the superiority of religion over indigenous beliefs and colonization itself. The depiction of indigenous practices as inhuman is implicitly contrasted to the imaginations of the audience when the Spanish ships appear on the screen. There is no need for a further development of the storyline that would include the establishment of colonies and overthrow of Empires in the Americas.

Latin America and its history (the myths, the culture, the traditions, and even the language) brings to the film industry the complexity and beauty necessary for creating a plot that is both realistic and fantastic at the same time. Apocalypto might convince its audience that the purpose is sharing the struggles lived by indigenous, even before the colonial period. And even though it does show events that are part of history, it only reaffirms imaginaries of implicit Western superiority that were once used to justify colonization.

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