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Brutally Honest

The multicultural set doesn't like Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" because of its depiction of Mayan brutality.

11:00 PM, Dec 14, 2006 • By SONNY BUNCH
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MEL GIBSON'S Apocalypto is one of the few films that can rightly be described as a journey. The viewer is snatched from the confines (and comforts) of a Hollywood movie and thrown deep into the jungles of Central America. The film itself is a visual masterpiece; shot entirely in a Mayan dialect, Gibson flexes his visual muscles to show rather than tell.

Billed as a historical drama, Apocalypto is actually part revenge flick and part chase flick. After being brutally taken from his idyllic home (where his beloved father's throat was slit by the cruelest of his captors), the hero, Jaguar Paw, narrowly escapes having his heart torn from his chest as part of a human sacrifice. He then leads his tormentors on a harrowing chase through the jungle, utilizing his knowledge of the familiar terrain that surrounds his village to pick off his enemies one by one.

The plot itself is almost secondary, and little more than an excuse for Gibson to show off his phenomenal film making talents. In addition to the stunning jungle scenes, Gibson treats us to a view of what life in a vast Mayan city may have been like at the height of its culture. Immense pyramids rise out of the foliage; prisoners are sold as slaves and sacrificed in incredibly brutal ways; those not sacrificed are used for human target practice. If you can handle gore (and really, the movie is no more violent--and in some ways, far less so--than, say, Braveheart, which took home 5 Oscars, including Best Picture), do yourself a favor and see this innovative, unique movie.

AS INTERESTING as the film itself has been the reaction to it by film critics and historians alike. Those who praise the movie almost uniformly mention, if not condemn, Gibson's infamous anti-Semitic outburst (in the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that "say what you will about him--about his problem with booze or his problem with Jews--he is a serious filmmaker").

Other critics have, curiously, dismissed the film because it doesn't inform us about some of the accomplishments of the Mayans. "It teaches us nothing about Mayan civilization, religion, or cultural innovations (Calendars? Hieroglyphic writing? Some of the largest pyramids on Earth?)," Dana Stevens wrote in Slate. "Rather, Gibson's fascination with the Mayans seems to spring entirely from the fact (or fantasy) that they were exotic badasses who knew how to whomp the hell out of one another, old-school."

This is a strange criticism. If you were interested in boning up on calendars, hieroglyphics, and pyramids you could simply watch a middle-school film strip. And who complained that in Gladiator Ridley Scott showed epic battle scenes and vicious gladiatorial combat instead of teaching us how the aqueducts were built?

AND THEN there have been the multi-culturist complaints. Ignacio Ochoa, the director of the Nahual Foundation, says that "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." Julia Guernsey, an assistant professor in the department of art and art history at the University of Texas told a reporter after viewing the film, "I hate it. I despise it. I think it's despicable. It's offensive to Maya people. It's offensive to those of us who try to teach cultural sensitivity and alternative world views that might not match our own 21st century Western ones but are nonetheless valid."

Newsweek reports that "although a few Mayan murals do illustrate the capture and even torture of prisoners, none depicts decapitation" as a mural in a trailer for the film does. "That is wrong. It's just plain wrong," the magazine quotes Harvard professor William Fash as saying.

Karl Taube, a professor of anthropology at UC Riverside, complained to the Washington Post about the portrayal of slaves building the Mayan pyramids. "We have no evidence of large numbers of slaves," he told the paper.

Even the mere arrival, at the end of the film, of Spanish explorers has been lambasted as culturally insensitive. Here's Guernsey, again, providing a questionable interpretation of the film's final minutes: "And the ending with the arrival of the Spanish (conquistadors) underscored the film's message that this culture is doomed because of its own brutality. The implied message is that it's Christianity that saves these brutal savages."