Scenes of enslaved Maya Indians building temples for a violent, decadent culture in Mel Gibson's new film "Apocalypto" may ring true for many of today's Mayas, who earn meager wages in construction camps, building huge tourist resorts on land they once owned.
Some Mayas are excited at the prospect of the first feature film made in their native tongue, Yucatec Maya. But others among the 800,000 surviving Mayans are worried that Gibson's hyper-violent, apocalyptic film could be just the latest misreading of their culture by outsiders.
"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 defense group "Mayaon," or "We are Maya."
"This could be an attempt to merchandize or sell the image of a culture, or its people, that often differs from what that people needs or wants," Cool May said.
Gibson employed Mayas, most of whom live on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, in the filming of the movie, and says he wants to make the Mayan language "cool" again, and encourage young people "to speak it with pride."
The film has been screened for some U.S. Indians, who praised the use of Indian actors. The Mayas haven't seen it yet, but like Indians north of the border, they have seen others co-opt their culture, as in high-class Caribbean resorts like the Maya Coast and the Maya Riviera.
But Indians are largely absent from those beach resorts, where vacationers tour mock Mayan Villages or watch culturally inaccurate mishmashes with "Mayan Dancers" performing in feather headdresses and face paint.
"The owners are often foreigners who buy up the land at ridiculously low prices, build tourism resorts and the Mayas in reality are often just the construction workers for the hotels or, at best, are employed as chamber maids," said Cool May.
"Apocalypto" also portrays Mayan civilization at a low moment, just before the Spaniards arrived, when declining, quarreling Mayan groups were focused more on war and human sacrifice than on the calendars and writing system of the civilization's bloody but brilliant classical period.
Outsiders' views of the Maya have long been subject to changing intellectual fashions. Until the 1950s, academics often depicted the ancient Mayas as an idyllic, peaceful culture devoted to astronomy and mathematics. Evidence has since emerged that, even at their height, the Mayas fought bloody and sometimes apocalyptic wars among themselves, lending somewhat more credence to Gibson's approach.
Warrior-kings and priests directed periodic wars among the ancient Maya aimed at capturing slaves or prisoners for labor or human sacrifice. Entire cities were destroyed by the wars and whole forests cut down to build the temples.
The latest trendy theory is a largely Internet-based rumor that the Mayan long-count calendar predicts a global calamity on Dec. 22, 2012. Some have woven that together with prophecies from the Bible.
Mauricio Amuy, a non-Maya actor who participated in the filming of Apocalypto, says the production staff discussed the theory on the set.
"We know the Bible talks about prophecies and that the Mayas spoke of a change of energy on Dec. 22, 2012, and it (the movie) is somewhat focused on that," Amuy said. "People should perhaps take that theory and reflect and not do these things that are destroying humanity."
While they resisted the Spanish conquest longer than most Indians - the Mayas' last rebellion, the War of the Castes, lasted until 1901 - many were virtually enslaved until the early 1900s on plantations growing sisal, used for rope-making, or in the jungle, tapping gum trees. Discrimination and poverty are probably their greatest enemies today.
Today's Maya are known mainly for their elaborate rhyming jokes, a cuisine based on pumpkin and achiote seeds, and loose embroidered white clothing. They're largely peaceful farmers and masons who carry their goods on ubiquitous three-wheeled bicycles over table-flat Yucatan.