Sunday, December 10, 2006

Apocalypto provides visceral insight into early American cultures

Like many history buffs, I went to see Mel Gibson's latest offering, Apocalypto, this weekend. I had read a mixed lot of reviews and, although there seemed to be no consenus, I thought it worthwhile to see a film depicting a civilization rarely if ever the centerpiece of a Hollywood production.

I found the film quite visually interesting. The costumes and makeup reflected the unique designs I have seen in museum exhibits of central American art at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the University of Utah Museum of Fine Art in Salt Lake City. I found the set detail in the scenes of the Mayan city with its smoking pyramids and streets seething with people utterly fascinating. It really brought the civilization to life just as the gritty scenes of Roman streets and temples did in the HBO miniseries, "Rome".

My primary regret was that the plot for the film was a basic chase and the villains in the film were rather two-dimensional. Every civilization has its good aspects as well as its bad and to allow the practice of human sacrifice to overshadow some of the Maya's phenomenal accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, and engineering was a disservice to their culture and to history. As for the violence, I found it graphic but no more so than the arena violence in "Gladiator" or the battle scenes in "Troy". The ancient world was a violent place. I think the outcry about the film's violence is just posturing by the politically correct who must find fault with the film not because of its actual cinematic shortcomings but because of the publicly acclaimed "dark nature" of its director.

From a historical perspective, Mr. Gibson chose to interject European intervention several centuries too early. I don't know if this was the result of trying to find some dramatic way to end the chase or to draw a social parallel but it did not accomplish either of these goals.

I think the film would have had far more impact if it had depicted the decline of the Maya from a catastophic drought, as historical evidence indicates, and used their desperation as the reason for their frenzy of human sacrifice. It would have provided the opportunity to introduce at least some empathy for their own situation as well as illustrated the futility of their extreme actions.

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