July 27, 2005

A film that speaks for itself -- in Mayan?

According to a 7/26/2005 CNN article, Mel Gibson's next movie will be in "a Mayan dialect".

Gibson is due to begin shooting the film, titled "Apocalypto," on location in Mexico in October and is aiming for a summer 2006 release, spokesman Alan Nierob said on Monday.
As with "Passion," Gibson will direct and produce the Mayan-language film from his own script through his own company, Icon Productions, and he will not appear in the movie.
The film's cast will consist of unknown performers native to the region of Mexico where the film is being shot... Few others details about Gibson's project were revealed.
"He lets his work speak for itself," Nierob said.

But some other details about the project are revealed in the next few paragraphs of the story:

The story, which Gibson began writing nine months ago, is described as a "unique adventure" set 500 years in the past. Nierob said the title, "Apocalypto," was taken from the Greek word for an unveiling or new beginning.
A note on the first page of the script says: "The dialogue you are about to read will not be spoken in English." Gibson presumably will have the script translated into Mayan by a scholar of the language and release the film with English subtitles, as he did for "Passion."

I wonder what "Mayan" means in this context: in the Ethnologue, it covers some 69 current languages. I guess the answer will depend on the action's place and time. Although CNN says that the story is set 500 years in the past, a 7/22/2005 article at TimeOut says that it is "[s]et in an ancient civilisation some 3,000 years ago". (TimeOut also says that "the film will apparently be full of action and violence, but will have no religious theme".)

3,000 years ago sounds unlikely for an "ancient civilization" speaking a Mayan language. As I understand it, the classical Mayan civilization dates to about 300-900 A.D. The Spanish conquered the post-classical Mayans in the Yucatan in the middle of the 16th century, which would be closer to 500 years ago -- but then some of the film would be in Spanish. According to MovieWeb, (citing Variety as a source)

Production chiefs went to Gibson's office in Santa Monica this past week to read the script under his watchful eye. Helmer-thesp set secrecy rules because he was distressed that copies of his script for The Passion of the Christ leaked to the media, fueling early controversial reports about the project.

But, um, weren't there some, uh, reasons why the script for the Passion of the Christ was controversial, reasons that wouldn't exactly apply to a non-religious violent epic set in ancient Mexico? Or is there something here I'm not seeing?

By the way, you can tell how un-wired I am, Variety-wise, by the fact that I boggled at the word helmer-thesp. At first I thought it was some kind of strange cut-and-paste error, but a quick Googling set me straight.

Anyhow, I'm waiting for Mel's Gilgamesh -- with dialog in Sumerian!

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 27, 2005 08:25 AM