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Maya culpa? 'Apocalypto' reaches Latin America

January 16, 2007|Mark Stevenson | Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — Mayan Indians were having mixed reactions to Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" prior to Monday's screening of the movie in Mexico City after viewing bootleg copies of the bloody, pre-Columbian epic set in a Mexican jungle.

In a region where pirate DVD copies are often available on street corners before movies even open, some Indians said the movie misrepresents the ancient Maya as a violent, bloodthirsty culture.

Others appreciated Gibson's attempt to make the first feature-length film entirely in Yucatec Maya, the language still spoken by about 800,000 Mexicans whose ancestors ruled an empire from about 250 until the Spanish conquest of the 1520s.

"For the most part, you could understand everything," said Maya activist Amadeo Cool May, who in particular praised the film's prophetic speech by a child about the impending collapse of the Indian city-state. "That was really Maya. Her monologue was well done."

Cool May added that, as he sees it, "the intention [of the film] isn't to talk about the culture, but rather to exploit the plot of a hero versus a villain."

Bartolome Alonzo Caamal, who has taught Maya in Yucatan schools for four decades, said he was pleased the movie had been made and saw it as "a way to focus on the importance of Mayan culture."

But he said "it focused too much on the violent aspects ... like slavery or human sacrifice" instead of the Maya's accomplishments in systems of writing, mathematics and calendars. Some of the actors didn't speak Maya well, he added.

Alonzo Caamal, however, did like the final scene, in which the Spaniards who eventually conquered and exploited the Maya appear.

Others were more critical.

"The level of violence in the film could lead some to say the Mayas were a violent people who could only be saved by the arrival of the Spaniards, when history shows it was quite the opposite," said Juan Tiney, of Guatemala's Indian and Farmer Coordinating Council.

Guatemala has a large Maya Indian population whose languages differ from the one used in the movie. Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan Quiche Indian, says she will not even bother to see it.

"For my mental health, I don't watch violent movies, because we've already suffered enough violence in Guatemala," she said.

Controversy is nothing new for Gibson, who planned to attend a private screening of the film in an upscale Mexico City neighborhood late Monday, according to his publicist, Alan Nierob. It opens here Friday.

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