Breaking the Maya Code
First Run Features // Unrated // $24.95 // September 16, 2008
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted September 18, 2008
Highly Recommended
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The Movie:
It's somewhat humbling while watching Breaking the Maya Code to see this supposedly technologically primitive people were predicting eclipses and cataloguing the orbit of Venus with astounding accuracy nearly a millenium ago. It's also humbling to see the completely oafish several centuries of idiotic behaviors which kept the Mayan language from being understood until very, very recently. We Westerners often think we're the repositories of all knowledge, and that hubris has often led us down dead end paths where we're still insisting we're not lost and know the way. That blindness is on pretty pathetic display throughout this revelatory documentary which has just jumped to the head of the class of recent "true life" stories I've seen.

The Maya culture has left us a fascinating, if largely misunderstood, reliquary of temples and other artifacts that are a unique blend of art and language, a language that as recently as 50 or so years ago was more or less incomprehensible. When the Spanish conquerors found these "barbarian" peoples centuries ago, their first activities of course were to convert them to Christianity, teach them "cultured" languages, and, most importantly, eradicate any vestiges of supposedly "Satanic" elements like the native Mayan language. And thus we see a reenactment of literally thousands of Mayan codices being burnt, with the absolutely gut-wrenching result that only four such books are known to be extant in our current time.

While Bishop de Landa is vilified for managing a sort of mini-Inquisition (not so mini, it turns out) against the Maya, he also had the foresight to have some of the Mayan symbols (what he thought was an alphabet) transliterated into our western letters. That began a multi-century ordeal while various scholars and epigraphers fought over what exactly these mysterious glyphs meant. One school insisted they were logographs (pictures of ideas), other insisted they were syllabic symbols, while still others insisted they were more akin to our alphabetic system.

Along the way you meet an incredibly diverse bunch of people, including Eric Thompson, a sort of "my way or the highway" high school football coach sort of anthropologist who tamped down any dissenting opinion for half a century, even though it turned out his theories are largely incorrect. Or perhaps you'll have a better opinion of a World War II Soviet soldier named Yuri Knorosov, who stumbled across a reproduction of a Maya codex as the war wound down, became intrigued enough to pursue a career in linguistics, and made the most cogent case for the glyphs being syllabic in nature. Perhaps most amazing is the tale of David Stuart, who grew up around the Maya ruins due to being the son of a famous National Geographic explorer, and who, incredibly, at the tender age of 12 started to deliver scholarly papers that dumbfounded the "experts," leading to his becoming the youngest ever recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and ultimately leading to a final breakthrough which pretty much cracked the Maya code. (It turns out that the Maya language has elements of logography, syllabic and alphabetic systems, something none of the exclusionary "experts" even considered).

This is one astounding piece of filmmaking, built around a story so amazing you'll swear director David Lebrun must be making it up. And yet we're presented with great location shots of various Maya ruins, notably Pelenque, as well as some really excellent interviews (some archival) with most of the major 20th century players in the translation efforts, as well as a whirwind trip through several centuries of a not always happy history. That the ultimate victory came at the hands of purported "amateurs" is a testament to the love a lot of these people felt for the Maya culture in general, not just its beautiful and mysterious language symbols.

The documentary wraps up on a sort of touching note by showing modern Mayans being re-taught to read the heiroglyphs of their language, and by dint of recent translations, their own history which was long suppressed by western "education." It's thrilling to see this long dead language coming back to life, however fitfully, and to see an entire culture reconnecting with its truly awe inspiring past.


The unenhanced 1.78:1 image varies in quality due to its source elements. Some of the current interview segments are relatively sharp, with excellent color, while a lot of the vintage film (from the 1970s especially) is pretty soft and degraded. This piece also evidences a few of the aliasing problems I discussed in Lebrun's other recent DVD release, Proteus, but they are not nearly so bad on this DVD.

The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is excellent for what it is, largely CCH Pounder delivering a well-written narration, interspersed with interview segments. Yuval Ron's underscore is understated yet effective, mixed to the point where it's almost subliminal at times. No subtitles are available.

Extras include a gallery of production stills, a biography of Lebrun, a resource guide, as well as a preview of Proteus. As usual, there's also a gallery of First Run Features trailers.

Final Thoughts:
Trust me on this one--even if you don't have a particular interest in Maya culture or even less the history of languages and translations, you are going to be spellbound by Breaking the Maya Code. Highly recommended.

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