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Is "Apocalypto" Pornography? December 5, 2006
by Traci Ardren

A scholar challenges Mel Gibson's use of the ancient Maya culture as a metaphor for his vision of today's world.

Traci Ardren, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Miami, knows the Maya well. She has studied Classic Maya society for over 20 years while living in the modern Maya villages of Yaxuna, Chunchucmil, and Espita in the Mexican state of Yucatan. Her credentials include contributing to and editing Ancient Maya Women (2002) and The Social Experience of Childhood in Ancient Mesoamerica (2006). Ardren's reaction to the new film "Apocalypto," follows. Scholars are well aware that some aspects of Maya culture were violent, but Ardren finds fault with what she sees as a pervasive colonial attitude in the film.

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With great trepidation I went to an advance screening of "Apocalypto" last night in Miami. No one really expects historical dramas to be accurate, so I was not so much concerned with whether or not the film would accurately represent what we know of Classic period Maya history as I was concerned about the message Mel Gibson wanted to convey through the film. After Jared Diamond's best-selling book Collapse, it has become fashionable to use the so-called Maya collapse as a metaphor for Western society's environmental and political excesses. Setting aside the fact that the Maya lived for more than a thousand years in a fragile tropical environment before their cities were abandoned, while here in the U.S, we have polluted our urban environments in less than 200, I anticipated a heavy-handed cautionary tale wrapped up in Native American costume.

What I saw was much worse than this. The thrill of hearing melodic Yucatec Maya spoken by familiar faces (although the five lead actors are not Yucatec Maya but other talented Native American actors) during the first ten minutes of the movie is swiftly and brutally replaced with stomach churning panic at the graphic Maya-on-Maya violence depicted in a village raid scene of nearly 15 minutes. From then on the entire movie never ceases to utilize every possible excuse to depict more violence. It is unrelenting. Our hero, Jaguar Paw, played by the charismatic Cree actor Rudy Youngblood, has one hellavuh bad couple of days. Captured for sacrifice, forced to march to the putrid city nearby, he endures every tropical jungle attack conceivable and that is after he escapes the relentless brutality of the elites. I am told this part of the movie is completely derivative of the 1966 film "The Naked Prey." Pure action flick, with one ridiculous encounter after another, filmed beautifully in the way that only Hollywood blockbusters can afford, this is the part of the movie that will draw in audiences and demonstrates Gibson's skill as a cinematic storyteller.

But I find the visual appeal of the film one of the most disturbing aspects of "Apocalypto." The jungles of Veracruz and Costa Rica have never looked better, the masked priests on the temple jump right off a Classic Maya vase, and the people are gorgeous. The fact that this film was made in Mexico and filmed in the Yucatec Maya language coupled with its visual appeal makes it all the more dangerous. It looks authentic; viewers will be captivated by the crazy, exotic mess of the city and the howler monkeys in the jungle. And who really cares that the Maya were not living in cities when the Spanish arrived? Yes, Gibson includes the arrival of clearly Christian missionaries (these guys are too clean to be conquistadors) in the last five minutes of the story (in the real world the Spanish arrived 300 years after the last Maya city was abandoned). It is one of the few calm moments in an otherwise aggressively paced film. The message? The end is near and the savior has come. Gibson's efforts at authenticity of location and language might, for some viewers, mask his blatantly colonial message that the Maya needed saving because they were rotten at the core. Using the decline of Classic urbanism as his backdrop, Gibson communicates that there was absolutely nothing redeemable about Maya culture, especially elite culture which is depicted as a disgusting feast of blood and excess.

Before anyone thinks I have forgotten my Metamucil this morning, I am not a compulsively politically correct type who sees the Maya as the epitome of goodness and light. I know the Maya practiced brutal violence upon one another, and I have studied child sacrifice during the Classic period. But in "Apocalypto," no mention is made of the achievements in science and art, the profound spirituality and connection to agricultural cycles, or the engineering feats of Maya cities. Instead, Gibson replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserve, in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to justify the subjugation of Maya people and it has been thoroughly deconstructed and rejected by Maya intellectuals and community leaders throughout the Maya area today. In fact, Maya intellectuals have demonstrated convincingly that such ideas were manipulated by the Guatemalan army to justify the genocidal civil war of the 1970-1990s. To see this same trope about who indigenous people were (and are today?) used as the basis for entertainment (and I use the term loosely) is truly embarrassing. How can we continue to produce such one-sided and clearly exploitative messages about the indigenous people of the New World?

I loved Gibson's film "Braveheart," I really did. But there is something very different about portraying a group of people, who are now recovering from 500 years of colonization, as violent and brutal. These are people who are living with the very real effects of persistent racism that at its heart sees them as less than human. To think that a movie about the 1,000 ways a Maya can kill a Maya--when only 10 years ago Maya people were systematically being exterminated in Guatemala just for being Maya--is in any way okay, entertaining, or helpful is the epitome of a Western fantasy of supremacy that I find sad and ultimately pornographic. It is surely no surprise that "Apolcalypto" has very little to do with Maya culture and instead is Gibson's comment on the excesses he perceives in modern Western society. I just wish he had been honest enough to say this. Instead he has created a beautiful and disturbing portrait that satisfies his need for comment but does violence to one of the most impressive of Native American cultures.

Traci Ardren is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Miami.

Another Mayanist, SMU's David Freidel, weighs in on the film in our upcoming March/April issue.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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