First, the title. It doesn't mean, as Gibson claims, a "new beginning." It means an unveiling, a revelation, which, of course, could mean "new beginning," if in fact it is the revelation that allows or enables the new beginning. More on that later.
The movie opens with scenes of a hunt of a tapir, rather bloody. They chase the beast down, kill it, and disembowel it, and Jaguar Paw hands parts off to his friends according to their personality. The liver goes to one, the heart to another, and the testicles go to his chubby, impotent friend, who doesn't know that it is a joke simply to get him to eat testicles. Nevertheless, the treatment of the tapir is a little gut-wrenching to those of us who are used to getting our meat nicely wrapped in plastic.
Why would this scene be in the movie? There are two reasons, one obvious and one not: to show us the main characters and get us to see that, despite the bones through their noses and earlobes, they are not very different from us, but also, I think, to show us a prefiguring in the animal of the later mistreatment of humans. Jaguar Paw holds out a heart of a tapir, whereas the high priest holds out the still-beating heart of a man. The meaning is clear: the Mayans have come to see man as expendable, as a beast just like the tapir, to be hunted, enslaved, or killed as circumstances warrant.
Jaguar Paw returns to his village with his father and friends, and scenes of domestic life are shown. We are introduced to his son and his wife, Seven, played by the beautiful Dalia Hernandez, who is near-term pregnant. Later that night, they listen to one of the elders tell a story, which sets the theme for the entire movie. I will paraphrase as I remember it: Man asked for gifts from all the animals, and got sight from the vulture, strength from the bear (I can't remember the details), etc. But the animals were dismayed when the owl said that man had a hole in him, and that no matter how much he received, he would always seek for more, until the earth itself declared that she had no more to give. This parable matches exactly the contrast between the villagers who hunt to support their families, and the Mayans, who enslave to build cities, and then kill to appease the gods to save the cities they have built, killing ever more and more people, so much that they have to raid other nations and peoples to supply their sacrifices.
At this point, a Mayan raiding party captures the men and some of the women of the village. I don't care to go into detail about what happens, but Jaguar Paw manages to secrete his wife and child down in a pit, but goes off to help in the defense of his village. He sees his father killed before him, but his father is able to give him one last word: "Do not be afraid." It is advice that comes ultimately from Christ, but were notably the first words in the first sermon of Pope John Paul II.
Here begins a long march to the Mayan capital. Of interest is the contrast between the Mayan captain and his underling (I didn't get the names), who is willfully cruel to the prisoners. The Captain is all business, and is almost admirable in the way he goes about transporting his prisoners to their death, whereas the underling, who I will call Mean Guy, does all he can to make the journey painful and humiliating. It is an interesting contrast. Mean Guy enjoys his job, but because he is a bad man. The Captain enjoys his job, not because he is a bad man, but because he things his work helps his people. He is a competent workman who takes pride in the work of his hands, and there are even tender moments as he encourages his son to do well in the profession. The Captain is the chief villain of the piece, but he is not portrayed as someone purely evil or as a caricature, but as a good family man who does his duty, as he perceives it.
I note that as the abandoned children of the village follow their parents and the captors, having nowhere else to go, one of the women prays to Ixchel, "mother of mercy", to protect them from harm. "Mother of Mercy" is one of the titles of the Virgin Mary, found in the prayer Salve Regina.
Once they arrive at the capital, through scenes of the blight of the surrounding region (which to my mind recalled the grail story, where the whole land suffers because of the wound of the king), and a leprous girl who, when spurned, prophesies the doom of the Mayan nation, we see the men prepared for sacrifices. They are painted blue (as the old wall-paintings show), and ultimately brought to the top of the pyramid to have their hearts cut out and fed to the idol of the god Kukulkan, and then to be decapitated and flung down the steps. The purpose was to ease the blight by appeasing the blood-lust of the god. Many of the people take part eagerly in the bloody festival, but the royal family and many others are bored.
It is fortuitous that I saw this movie on the same day that I read a story about the possibility of Ukrainian babies being killed after birth to provide stem cells to cure adults. The parallel is obvious: the Mayans (and the Aztecs) had to conquer neighboring peoples to remove the blight on their crops, whereas modern man has to kill children (preferably in the womb) to satisfy his appetites, either for convenient sex or in the hope of immortality. Other humans are reduced to the status of the hunter tapir in order to provide the needs of the powerful. I think that's clearly one of the major themes of the movie, that in a decadent society people are reduced to animals, to mere means to an end, to fodder for the gods or to serve whatever ends others have.
Jaguar Paw makes a miraculous escape from the pyramid, and alone survives to return to his forest, where his wife and child await in the pit. It is quite a thrilling chase. Suffice it to say that he does eventually beat his pursuers and rescue his family. He does this because the last pursuers are distracted by the arrival of the Spanish ships on the beach.
The movie ends with Jaguar Paw, Seven, and the two boys making their way into the forest. Seven asks if perhaps they should go meet the newcomers, but Jaguar Paw says that they should go into the forest, to make a new beginning. At this point we finally get the title of the movie and the credits.
Could you read this movie as a defense of the Spanish conquistadors? I don't think so, especially given the words of Jaguar Paw, that it is better to go into the forest. Nevertheless, the parallel of "new beginning" with Apocalypto shows that there is a Christian undercurrent to the movie. One should also note the lines in the credits "In remembrance of Abel." Abel was the first murder victim, starting a cycle of killing that has continued ever since. The Spaniards and the Mayans are not much different, except that there is the Cross and Resurrection, which, for those who accept it, provides just the new beginning that is needed, a release from fear, and from the rapacious desire attributed to man by the Owl in the old man's story. How is one to make a new beginning? I quote from another Mel Gibson film, where Jesus, when he meets his mother on the path to Golgotha, says through his pain "See how I make all things new!"
That should suffice for now. In summary, a very interesting film.