If Mel Gibson believed he was paying the Mayan people a compliment with his latest film, Apocalypto, which opened to mostly positive reviews in the United States last night, he may be disappointed that not all of the descendants of their once great empire see it that way. But then Gibson is a man used to controversy.
The film, which opens months after Gibson fell into disgrace with an outburst of anti-Semitic slurs in a drink-driving incident, is a vivid but often gruesome study of Mayan society on the eve of the Spanish conquests. The dialogue is in Mayan language and he uses Mayan and Native American actors. But it is the blood-letting, seen by some reviewers as overwhelming the artistry of the film, that has led some Mayan activists to brand his treatment of them as racist and based on unflattering caricature.
"Gibson replays, in glorious big budget Technicolour, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of the Europeans and thus they served, in fact, needed, rescue," insists Ignacio Ochoa, director of the Nahual Foundation that promotes Mayan culture.
The main character, Jaguar Paw, played by Rudy Youngblood, is seen embarking on a mission of rescue and revenge after members of his family are raped, burnt, killed and kidnapped by a rival Mayan tribe. Faces are ripped off, beating hearts are torn from men and Jaguar Paw is tagged for human sacrifice.
There are about 800,000 surviving Mayans, mostly in southern Mexico, Guatamala and Belize. About 33 per cent of the population of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico still speak the Mayan language, called Yucatec Maya, and many had been hoping the film would give a more authentic picture of their cultural heritage than is available in the tourist depictions in Cancun and the resorts of the Mayan Riviera.
Yet some have long been afraid that Gibson, who was first accused of anti-Semitism after his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, would ignore the glories of their past and opt instead to overplay the savagery of their internal wars.
"There has been a lot of concern among Mayan groups from Mexico, Guatemala and Belize because we don't know what his treatment or take on this is going to be," said Amadeo Cool May, of the Indian defence group Mayaon.