Mel Gibson – drunken, racist ranter and macho hero of too many silly, bloody action films: can you take him seriously? But you may be a bit puzzled by his latest venture – a subtitled historical blockbuster in Mayan, acted by unknown indigenous Americans, mostly with little or no professional acting experience. Hardly box office you’d say. But Gibson is no dolt.

For 30 minutes he gives us an idyllic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It’s light, entertaining and cleverly written – they live communally but in family units. Okay, they don’t wear Levis, but they’re essentially just like us. A hunting scene, though, foretends violence to come – and come it does. With extreme brutality, a raiding party from an imperial Mayan city take slaves and fit young men to sacrifice to their gods.

Gibson’s an ambitious filmmaker, using spectacle, thrills and action – American cinema does that brilliantly – to an apparently serious end. *Apocalypto* is powerful, and it is thought- provoking. It convincingly shows a human capacity for indifference to suffering of the ‘other tribe’. But Gibson is much less adept with the contemporary political parallels. We learn little – other than as spectacle – about life in the Mayan cities and the environmental over-exploitation and degradation that apparently brought them down. This could have been so much more – but, hey, this is Hollywood!

New Internationalist issue 397 magazine cover This article is from the January/February 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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