Thursday, 18 February 2010

Maya mania.

I watched the film Apocalypto today, catching it on BBC I player. Nicely done, but so gory that I wouldn't want to see it again too soon. Mel Gibson, the director, seems to be the man to go to for beautifully-shot, ultra-violent historical films in obscure languages. After some character-establishing scenes (involving the impaling of a tapir ) the action gets going when a small army of villainous Maya warriors come raiding the hero's forest village for slaves and sacrifice victims. Amid this violent backdrop, the hero, a hunter called Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) lowers his wife and son down a deep, unescapable hole (for safety) before rushing off, as it appears, to single-handedly take on the elite Mayan death-squad. Self-confidence is a grand thing but it seemed a bit ambitious for him to think he might still be around later to fish his loved-ones out. Having been dragged from the jungle to the city, the Jaguar Paw is all ready to have his heart cut out by the priests.(The blue pain the sacrifice-victims were daubed in seemed to be making use of left-over woad from Braveheart (along with plenty of fake blood from The Passion. ) The unexpected solar eclipse that saved him seemed a bit of a Deus Ex Machina, especially considering that the real Maya priests were said to be great astrologers, who would presumably not have been caught out like this. Interesting culture, not often seen in films, with none of the brutality left to the imagination. The villainous Maya warriors were a fearsome looking bunch. Normally you have to go to Camden Town to see that many tattoos and piercings. These movie Mayas managed to look pretty warlike even with their bare buttocks on display, a fact that lends new meaning to the term 'Badass'. In short, don't watch Apocalypto if you like tapirs and namby-pamby cultural relativism, or if you don't want to go on a particularly unpleasant walk in the woods.

The arrival of the Spanish in the final scene ended things on a reflective note about whether it wasn't just as well in the long run- even though the colonization was just as dangerous, implicitly, to the more sympathetic, forest-dwelling tribespeople of central America as it was to the cruel urban cultures that raised the blood-soaked pyramids.

The film provoked me to do a little reading about early Spanish contact with the Maya. I discovered a personality who had not made much impact on my consciousness before, namely Gonzalo Guerrero. This chap would be the good subject for a picture, or even a story. He was a sailor with the Spanish Conquistadors who was shipwrecked on the Mexican coast in 1511. Captured by the local Maya, most of his comrades were sacrificed to the Gods. Gonzalo won his freedom, however, on account of his bravery and became a warrior serving another Maya lord, in which capacity he did rather well. He must have been a resilient character, with qualities the natives could admire. By the time the Spanish next encountered him he had 'gone native'. He had a married a Maya lady and had fathered three children by her (the first individuals ever born of mixed European and Native-American race. This in itself is quite a thought. The human race completed its circumnavigation and joined up the circle of the globe genetically in the Guerrero family). Gonzalo even had a tattooed face and pierced ears, as he wrote to Cortes 'what would the Spanish make of me now?'. He had risen to become a respected commander, and went on to champion his adopted people in battle against his former compatriots. Gonzalo's example goes to show that there must have been something to be said for the culture to which the Spanish conquest put an end.

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