So very nearly good. I can forgive it things like architectural features apparently drawn
from about 1500 years of Mayan history. I can, if I try very hard, dig up a Mayan city still
occupied around, y’know, that time. (Though they could have made my life far simpler
in that respect by filming in Nahuatl instead of Yucatec. Then I wouldn’t have spent five
minutes after the credits snarling and flailing about Aztecs.) I could maybe even let go of
the weirdness of a large Mayan city apparently being surrounded by hunter-gatherers at no more
than two days’ distance. (What, did they all survive off that one cornfield?) And hey, some
of the things I thought were inaccuracies turned out not to be!
I debated long and hard whether or not I wanted to see this movie, given Mel Gibson’s
personal disagreeability to me, given the potential (and, I’m afraid, actual) colonialist
overtones of the story. In the end I went because I’m a Mesoamerican geek, and because I
wanted to tell Hollywood there’s at least one more person in the world who will happily watch
movies in obscure Central American languages with actors nobody’s ever heard of. And I don’t
regret going, and I really almost like the movie. But it isn’t what you’d call the best
representation of Mayan culture; the aforementioned hunter-gatherers make it look more
primitive than it needed to, and it doesn’t give the context that human sacrifice
needs. (Okay, so my article is Nonfiction Lite, but it sums up much of what I would
otherwise have to repeat here.) Few people watching that movie will know or care about the
cosmological framework in which sacrifice generally fit, nor the ways in which the epidemics
that appear to have preceded the physical arrival of Europeans on the mainland sent
people into a frenzy that was to normal behavior as the apocalyptic cults and flagellant
societies of plague-era Europe were to normal Christianity before everybody started dying.
Few people will think to make that comparison to our own history, and therefore to understand
how Europeans wouldn’t come off so well were we to make this kind of movie about them during
the Black Death. Instead, we get Noble Savages (the hunter-gatherers, whom I actually quite
liked aside from their anachronistic subsistence strategy) fleeing the pointless sadism of the
Evil City Folk. Things lack context, and sometimes sport inaccuracies while doing so. It isn’t a great combination.
And yet. And yet. The cenote outside the village, the jade in the nobles’ teeth, the
atlatl. The murals with elements taken from a site my sophomore
tutorial leader excavated. The actor whose profile is about the closest you can get to
Mayan without practicing cranial modification on an infant and then waiting twenty years for
him to grow up. There were so many details that were good, and Gibson filmed the movie in
freakin’ Yucatec. It came so close to being a film that would make me melt in geeky glee.
I just wish I didn’t have to feel so ambivalent about it.