doaskdotell MOVIE REVIEW of The Year Zero, The Last Days of the Maya, Apocalypto, Mystery of the Crystal Skulls


Title:  The Year Zero

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: The Netherlands: Spanish, native American and Dutch

Running time: 92 Min

MPAA Rating:  PG

Distributor and Production Company:  Kleine Beer Films (Netherlands company) and Wandering Wolf

Director; Writer:  Wiek Lenssen

Producer: Ruud Monster, Jan Heijs  Web site for film:


Cast:   Chris Kijne as narrator


Relevance to doaskdotell site: Survival of civilization (in our case, of “democratic capitalism” and liberty, which Mayan society would not have had as we know it).



The “Purification” anyone? That is what is in store for civilization from Dec 21-24 in 2012, at the end of “Fourth Sun” of the Mayan Calendar. The prophecy is grim, like maybe a pole shift with continents flooded while others rise (as in the 1977 book The Hab Theory).  We don’t know exactly how Mayan civilization developed its astonishing astronomical knowledge, but an earlier civilization (Atlantis) that kept its technological secrets well guarded from the masses is a good guess.  Most of this film is shot on location in Guatemala (near the Tikal site), after Mayan prophet called “Wandering Wolf” brought together medicine men from all over Latin America and also the United States to the Amazon jungle in Colombia for rituals. The film is organized by stills showing Mayan sculptures of the 13 days of the last Mayan week.  The rituals are interesting, one of them involving a gentle body massage.


Mayan civilization had developed peacefully before it was overrun by the Aztecs, when the Mayans gradually took on the warlike behaviors of their conquerors before dissolving into obscurity. Without such a tragic failure, they might have beaten the Europeans to becoming the world’s most advanced civilization—but the same thing has happened to the Chinese.


One point that is particularly interesting is the prophecy of the return of earlier “masters” who, in Christian terms, might be related to the 144000 in Revelations, or might be tied back to Atlantis.


I am not aware of any feature dramatic (with a screenplay, not a documentary) film set in Mayan culture.


(This film should not be confused with “Panic in the Year Zero” (1962).)


National Geographic broadcast a one hour film The Last Days of Maya in Nov. 2005. The documentary describes the rituals, involving sacrifices of individuals to gods as well as self-mutilation by priests. But suddenly most of the leaders and many ordinary people in one city in today’s Guatemala were murdered, their bodies thrown into water. Within fifty years, almost all of the city-states in the Mayan area were abandoned. Archeologists believe that there was a geometric explosion of population in ruling classes, supported by slaving underclasses, who started to rebel and overwhelm their rulers, causing disarray that caused people to flee and flood other cities. At the same time, there may have been a drought. The warning is that civilizations can fail, and suddenly, no matter how brilliant the people are. Particularly dangerous can be an expansion of upper middle class people and overuse of natural resources in an area, to the deprivation of the poor who support them – an almost Biblical concept.


Watch for Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” about the collapse of the Maya in late 2006 from Touchstone. I am hoping that this important film will come out despite the public outcry over Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic remarks at his arrest for DUI in California, a story from law enforcement and the sheriff’s office that seems bizarre and troubling, to say the least. 


Apocalypto (2006, Touchstone, dir. Mel Gibson, wr. With Farhad Safinia, 135 min, R, UK/Mexico, in Yucatec with subtitles, with local actors) is Gibson’s third big epic (after Braveheart and Passion of the Christ). Despite the epic-scale ambition, the film is shot "flat" (with standard aspect ratio), not taking advantage of the sweeping Mexican scenery, and, given the concentration of the story, comes across as an art film, rather than as a 50s spectacle, which it could have been. (Why didn't Disney use Newmarket to release it?) But what Gibson does is take us on a fascinating journey with a relatively linear story through a primitive world that does seem much more brutal and bare-bones than ancient cultures usually look in Hollywood. The Mayan city is shown only in the middle portion, and we never see enough of it to get the lay of the place.


Gibson sprinkles the film throughout with his moral lessons on the social issues, and in some ways he thinks about some things the way I do. (No, I would not say the things he said.) The central hero is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), who lives in the jungle in a primitive village. Life is very earthy and communal, with no pretense of personal lives as we know them. They have no wealth for others to expropriate. In the very opening scene, in fact, the natives kill a boar, and Rudy tries to prove his masculinity by eating the pig's testicles. (No "Babe" here.) Rudy is pressed to father kids (like Louis XVI in "Marie Antoinette"), and finally he does get his wife pregnant. Having an heir is the most important thing there is in their world; what else is there? But in time, invaders pillage and burn the village (which reminds one of the scenery in "The New World" sometimes), and cart off Rudy and others to the Mayan city to be sacrificed to the gods. Here Gibson gives us a visual tour of the failure of a civilization. We see a tree fall on the train of prisoners, then we see the scorched and calcified earth, and a little girl gives a deadly prophecy, while snarling.  The priests, of course, appease the rabid masses with sacrifices of natives kidnapped from the surrounding jungles, while their food supply fails because of their environmental abuse ("An Inconvenient Truth") and as the populations fall to disease (could it be smallpox from Europe?) The natives' naked bodies -- (I suspect they would have been nude in real life; the men are hairless-bodied and little differentiates their appearances to a western observer; there are homosexual implications in some of the torture, but there is nothing homoerotic in the experience of western gay men; physical performance is all there is in their culture; there is little reason for voyeurism)  --  will be spray painted, and, on top of the Mayan pyramid, they are sliced open alive (like in Hostel), their hearts displayed, and then they are decapitated; their heads and torsos rolled down the pyramid steps. But, just before Rudy is to become the next Mayan Sacrifice, a solar eclipse intervenes. Since the eclipse fits the little girl's prophecy of the end of time, he is let go. But the priests or their henchmen follow him to the field, and challenge him to run the gauntlet to escape. Various other prisoners are annihilated in this spectacle. But Rudy escapes into the jungle--after passing a field of corpses that echoes "The Killing Fields" as well as the Holocaust. He is able to use a female jaguar protecting her cub to lengthen his escape distance, and there are other wonderful tricks, like a hornet's nest. He gets to some falls and jumps and survives, but many of his pursuers won't. He falls into a quicksand or muskeg bog, gets out covered in black soot, imitating the jaguar. He doesn't really do the "brains over brawn" thing of Richard Connell's famous story "The Most Dangerous Game" but instead carries out simple jungle smarts in carrying out his escape. The Mayan leaders give him a lot of credit, as if his own actions could somehow undermine a whole empire, even in this largely primitive society (outside of the priesthood). When he returns home, there is a family to save: a wife, little son (apparently not his, but his responsibility anyway -- that happens) in a cistern hole (where he had hidden them during the raid) that reminds one of "Silence of the Lambs." But during a thunderstorm when the hole floods, his pregnant wife's baby is born underwater, quite a shot. Finally, the see the Spanish conquistadores land (is this period that late?) and Rudy announces that he will have a new beginning in the jungle, the meaning of the title of the film. 


I would have enjoyed a film that actually showed Mayan city life (The Washington Post in the McCarthy 50s had a section called "City Life") and politics. I certainly wonder about Mayan astronomy and prophecies as they apply to us. And there was nothing of the "ball game" or ball court that archeologists find interesting.  But Gibson seems to think there was much less to formal Mayan civilization than the conventional wisdom would hold. We are often told that the Maya provide us with a warning that we really can fail. But it seems that the failure was a decrescendo into whimpers rather than an apocalypse. By the time that the Spaniards arrived, the day was done.


In fact, critics have pointed out that the film implies some historical inaccuracies, possibly with a "blood libel" effect on the Mayan culture. The Mayans sacrificed their own elite in a kind or morality game (the ball game); they did not usually forage the jungles for victims. And they seem to have started a long gradual decline centuries before the Spanish came. William Booth has an interesting article in The Washington Post, Dec 9, 2006, p. C1, "Maya Mistake: Mel Gibson's Gory Action Film Sacrifices a Noble Civilization to Hollywood," here.


I got a bizarre email in late 2005 from someone giving me a sneak notice about the coming of this film; I might have had a chance to be involved in it. Maybe another one.  A distant family relative is actually working on a civil engineering project for a mission in Guatemala, with the Mayan people, who today live in poverty because of the failures of their ancestors. Maybe we could have been speaking Yucatec today instead of English. In the film, it sounds rich with expressions, rather like Finnish.        


Mystery of the Crystal Skulls (2008, SciFi, narrated by Lester Holt) examines the 8 known and other speculated crystal skulls from the Mayan area. Blogger.


Related reviews:  2012


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