Embrace Of The Serpent (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: Peccadillo Pictures) Running Time: 124 minutes approx.
We can lean a lot from films. They don’t all have to be fun, escapist entertainment to thrill and excite us nor do they have to be po-faced and formless in order to enlighten us either. Despite being snubbed by Son Of Saul for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Columbian director Ciro Guerra’s third feature is quite the experience.
Shot in crystal clear black and white, the story is told through two timelines thirty years apart from the perspective of Amazonian shaman Karamakate, the last of his tribe living alone in the jungle. In 1909 a German botanist Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his companion Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) seek the guidance of Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) to find the fabled yakruna plant, which Theo hopes will cure his illness.
In 1940, an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) is tracked down by an American scientist Evans (Brionne Davis), inspired by the writings of Theo to search for yakruna to help him dream, something he has never experienced. In both cases the journey involves uncovering secrets of the Amazon and the effects of colonialism on indigenous cultures.
Guerra’s film, like the yakruna plant, is fiction but it is based on the genuine diaries of real life scientists Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes, with a few of their experiences included in the adventures relayed here. And while the film’s aesthetic and presentation may not scream “adventure” this is exactly what ensues.
The period setting is around the time of the Amazon Rubber Boom when the white man turned the Amazon into a slave labour force to extract all of the latex from the trees, abusing the natives and destroying their culture. Guerra doesn’t use this for political capital beyond it being the reason Karamakate being so distrustful towards the white man.
Instead he uses it to remind us of the folly of colonialism and the resulting robbing the world of the unique cultures, beliefs and traditions of others that play an important part in this rich tapestry called life. When you are the last of a kind like Karamakate is, it is easy to take it personally, going as far as to even lambast Manduca for dressing like a white man, while Karamakate’s entire wardrobe is essentially a posing pouch.
When John Lennon sang the line “Imagine no possessions” he was chided by many who thought he was taking his new hippy persona a little too far. But for some civilisations in the world, this is their reality. Karamakate, both ages, feels it necessary to mock his western travellers for the cumbersome cases and trunks when all he needs is a spear.
As odd as this may seem to us, it provides a fascinating insight into the mindset and tenets of the jungle natives and their remarkable relationship with nature, putting them on a higher plane of inner peace than we civilised folks with our iPads, mobile phones and computers. For instance, Karamakate refuses to eat fish unless the moon is full, and he claims the tress, insects and the river has a story to tell.
Karamakate is not alone in his esoteric and simple beliefs but he is the last dangerous. With Theo and Manduca, they encounter a missionary run by a Spanish Catholic priest (Luigi Sciamanna), where the native young boys are punished for their “pagan” behaviour. In 1940, these boys have no grown up to be violent zealots of Anzietto (Nicolás Cancino) who believes and has convinced everyone he is new messiah.
Remarkably this was one the real life incidents Guerra drew upon for his script, with the fictional scenarios being more natural and less bizarre. But Guerra doesn’t play this for comedy and there is an unnerving sense of horror behind these incidents which serve to reiterate the central theme of the western influence ruining a world in which it doesn’t belong.
The bifurcated storyline is easy to follow, with a latter day mnemonic often triggering a recollection from Karamakate, transporting us back to 1909 to relive the events responsible for the state of affairs in 1940. Even with an older Karamakate and a different travelling companion, it feels like time has stood still in the Amazon, with little to discern one period from the other, playing into the spiritual musings the older and now dissolute shaman imparts.
Along with this sobering narrative, what makes this film such an effective experience is its immersive qualities, achieved through the camera and use of sound. In terms of transporting the viewer deep into the world we see on screen, this sits nicely next to The Revenant for that tangible sensation. The images may be shot in black and white but they are so vivid one can almost see the colours break through the monochrome veneer.
The photography is rich in depth and clarity, the shot on the river in which the trees are reflected in the shimmering waters are masterful examples of eye-catching composition. The music soundtrack is wistful and evocative of the mysterious aura the Amazon permeates, the illusion sadly shattered when Evans digs out a gramophone recording of Haydn’s The Creation.
But what does it all mean? Well, this is where we are left to draw our own conclusions. It could be saying trust in nature and listen to the dreams of your inner self for true spiritual enlightenment. Or, as we are presented with two diametrically opposed philosophies, the sense is that fundamentally we are all still the same and respect for other cultures is a two-way street.
However you choose to interpret it, Embrace Of The Serpent is an absorbing slice of cinema that takes the viewer on a real journey of discovery for two hours, via a visually immersive and near transcendental experience of rare depth and socio-political potency, buttressed by superb performances from the cast both native and foreign.
Poetic without pretension, this is passionate filmmaking at its best.
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
2.0 LPCM with Audio Description
English HOH Subtitles
Interview with Ciro Guerra
UK Theatrical Trailer
Rating – ****
Man In Black