Apocalypto: Mayan Grouper in Banana Leaves

Year Released: 2006
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Starring: Rudy Youngblood. Dalia Hernandez, Morris Byrd, Jonathan Brewer, Raoul Trujillo
(R, 137 min.)

"A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." Will Durant

The Maya were a great people. They built pyramids to rival those in Egypt. They created the notion of zero. And they were efficient and ruthless practitioners of human sacrifice. Mel Gibson explores this darker side of zero in his visually stunning epic.

Oh, how they hate this man, the effete, sneering critics who who hiss their sibilant denigration at him like so many vile serpents. “Mindless violence, meaningless gore” - this from an establishment that has reaped a steady profit from blood and guts for several decades. What really bothers them, I think, is that Gibson has once again defied predictions and achieved financial success with what they thought would be clunker: a foreign language film with unknown actors depicting the struggles of a dying ancient culture. Perhaps something for National Geographic or the History channel, but not your average moviegoer. 

Apocalypto is a simple story of capture and flight, of family love and tribal brotherhood pitted against a voracious decadence that threatens to engulf it. The opening is masterful, a sketch of a few swift brush strokes to establish themes that will resonate throughout. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and his fellow forest hunters work together to bring down a large tapir, each man getting a organ to devour for its symbolic strength. Once again, the frustrated Blunted (Jonathan Brewer) gets the testicles as well as some avuncular advice and herbs from Flint Sky (Morris Byrd) to ensure his fertility. Of course, both these “cures” are pure bunk, as the gentle giant Blunted finds out when he rubs the leaves into his flesh as instructed. Only the tribal water trough can cool him, and he good-naturedly laughs with all the others at his public humiliation.

What Gibson has done here is first to remind us that man exists through killing, that it is his nature. The brutal impalement of the tapir is a necessary cruelty, the extraction of its vital organs a gruesome precursor to the diabolical acts that will soon be meted upon these very warriors. The tribe becomes one as they share the joke on Blunted, and the fact that he responds with good will instead of sullen anger as many might, tells quite a bit about these gentle people. It also lulls us into that relaxed attitude all directors like to induce just before they drop us into the abyss.

Which comes in the form of Holcane warriors on the prowl for human victims to appease their god, who has been a bit dyspeptic lately, what with the drought, famine, and disease that he has been inflicting on his people. Nothing like a fresh beating heart neatly carved from a captive warrior to do the trick, if not for the petulant god, then for the cheering, blood thirsty populous that, like so many avid baseball fans in the bleachers, vies to catch recently severed heads bouncing down from atop the lofty pyramid.

Fate has precipitously saved Panther Claw from this diabolical death for a more mundane one with spears. Even with one in his side, he flees into the forest, determined to get back to his pregnant wife and son, whom he has left hiding in deep well. The heart-pounding chase that follows is pure adrenaline, the beasts of the jungle as fearsome as his tattooed pursuers.

One aspect that separates Apocalypto from other action adventure thrillers is the attention to authentic detail. Gibson and his casting crew searched extensively in Mexico, especially in the Yucatan, as well as the US, Canada, and Central America to find actors who had the “Mesoamerican” features; some from “isolated Indian communities who had never seen a hotel room before the production.” (Here’s a compelling read on the eclectic cast.)

The body piercings, tattoos, and human skeletal armor take your breath away, even if you live in Austin, Texas, where half the population strives for that look. And any leathery ladies decked out in a ponderous chain mail of turquoise and silver would take a back seat to the Maya queens who giggle through yet another decapitation. 

It’s also refreshing to find a director who still believes in the existence of evil instead of the social apologists who see only the grays of social injustice. And what a breather from the politically correct pap that the New World was all goodness and light until the evil Europeans invaded their Paradise, which, of course, is one of the reasons that poor Mel is taking a drubbing from some critics.

So, if you long for an earthy spectacle like Ben-Hur or Sparticus, with young Charlton Heston and cleft-chinned Kirk Douglas replaced by an equally earnest and compelling Rudy Youngbood – aptly named, I might add – go take in Apocalypto. You may gasp, but you won’t be disappointed.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

The first inkling that all is not well in Paradise is the beaten band that trespasses into Panther Paw’s woods, meekly asking for permission to pass through with their sizeable catch of fish. About them there is the smell of fear, the stench of ruin and defeat. Flint Sky sees the worry in his son’s eyes, and cautions him to resist the fear that seems to contaminate the scene.

Little does he know that volition alone cannot help him and his gentle warriors evade their fate?

One would have hoped that this meeting, where each shared food with the others, might have ended in a community feast, one last night of fellowship and peace before the onslaught.

Here is the perfect way they could have cooked the fresh ocean catch, an authentic Maya recipe for Grouper Steamed in Banana Leaves.

Mayan Grouper in Banana Leaves

Tikin Xic (6 servings)


  • 6 pieces of fish fillet (grouper or any white fish)
  • 18 oz achiote paste (recipe immediately following)
  • 2 whole white onions, sliced
  • 2 whole green peppers, sliced
  • 3 tomatoes, sliced
  • 6 epazote sprigs
  • 6 banana leaves

Serving suggestions:

Add a serving of mixed, fresh vegetables on the side of each plate.

Marinate the fillet with achiote for about 5 minutes. Put the fillet over the banana leaf, add epazote, onion, green pepper and tomato. Wrap and put it on the grill. Cook each side for 4 minutes. Serve with vegetable on the side.

Achiote Paste (6 servings) 

  • 11 ounces lemon juice
  • 6 ounces achiote
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • salt & pepper

Blend these ingredients together.

Recipe Source: MayaCuisine.com