Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Apocalypto Now

Mayan glyphI finally saw Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, months after putting together the prep page for that movie. It is certainly a film I will see again. As you might expect, I am convinced that the language in which an adventure is spun is an integral part of that adventure¬†and plays a defining role in it. Filming this motion picture entirely in a Mayan language without compromising the quality of the acting was a monumental accomplishment equal to that of filming The Passion of Christ in Aramaic.

Culture and language are inseparable. In fact, the culture of a people is laid out in terms of the language: the way that people think, the art and music, the law, the education, up-bringing are all defined to some degree by language. Language is, after all, the basis of self-expression and communication in any culture.

While it is true you miss subtleties wound up in the differences between languages reading subtitles, you lose even more if the movie is shot from a translation or a script in the viewer’s language. This is because gestures, posture, facial expressions are all unique to the language being spoken.

My major criticism is that the plot of the movie is just a programmatic US chase sequence: bad guys and good guys chase each other until one catches up with the other, then the No. 2 bad guy and No. 2 good guy clash. If the No. 2 bad guy survives, the No. 1 good guy has to kill him and the No. 1 good guy. When all the bad guys are dead, the chase is over.

I’ve seen this scenario so many times in US movies I retch every time it begins to unfold. If cars are involved, the chase inevitably includes the destruction of some small cart or stand that provides a living for some poor family that elicits more sympathy from me than any of the participants in the chase.

This would be a flaccid plot for a movie in a contemporary setting but this is a movie about people in a much more primitive setting where life was little more than one chase after another. This movie is about a major chase in the life of a Mayan village. So I’m impressed that the courage and cleverness displayed by the leading characters is authentic.

Since I am woefully unaware of the Mayan culture, particularly of that time, it is difficult to judge the acting but, based on what I know of other jungle cultures, it seems to be excellent. Of course, since Mel Gibson directs this movie, expect gore and guts; however, it is not overdone as I felt it was in The Passion of Christ.

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