Embrace of the Serpent – A Review
Caught the pre-release screening of the recent Columbian film Embrace of the Serpent last night at the Arts Picturehouse, which was followed up by a Q&A with the director, Ciro Guerra. Described by the Guardian as a “dreamlike exploration of the Amazon’s Imperialist pollution,” the film has won, amongst a host of other awards, the Art Cinema Award at Cannes, and is currently up for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards.
Before getting into the film proper, I’d like to pause for a moment and comment on how enjoyable it was to have access to this, the film itself and having the director present afterwards. I suppose this is what comes from living in a country with twice the population of Canada, crammed into a third the area of Ontario. What’s more, though, I think there are important cultural differences – that, to continue to support cinema such as this, to have a public that desires and consumes it, there is something not necessarily inward-looking, but perhaps self-regarding, about English culture that can be lacking in Canada. Sure, we get this sort of thing at tiff every year, and I’m sure the Lightbox runs events like this once in a while, but to have a chain of cinemas throughout the country, able to keep afloat fiscally, dedicated to this is something highly unlikely back home. I get that this is an artefact of a preening aristocracy, self-absorbed and eager to display their rarefied quality (no doubt redoubled by the jolly-jumping middle classes), but it is refreshing to see the effects of a conservation-minded Conservative politic, even if all that’s left of it now are ghost-like vapours of culture.
Returning to the film – the critics aren’t wrong. Shot in black and white on 35mm, the film offers a look at the Amazon that is lacking in other efforts. As Guerra expressed afterwards, it simply couldn’t have been shot in anything other than greyscale – trying to effectively capture the colours of the rainforest, never mind expressing their collective importance to the Indigenous, quickly became obvious as impossible. The choice to go black and white also had the benefit of levelling the playing field – everything stands out as equally important because nothing stands out from its surroundings. It’s a different way of seeing the jungle, one that throws it into relief and, surprisingly, aids in parsing the density of scenery. Using 35 mm was refreshing – refreshing in its lo-fi quality. Quick panning, aerial shots of the landscape blurred in a manner less common in the age of digital film, and it was a welcome change. It would be a mistake to think that this was then a muddy, murky film – far from it, with startlingly pristine long takes in several cases – but taking advantage of the limits of the medium allowed for an augmentation of the already dream-like quality of the narrative. Guerra rightly recognises that the world is chaos, and it is we that give order to it – this belief informs his work as director. Seeing the film for the cinematography alone would be worthwhile.
The story itself is dual – one vein, taking cues from the notebooks of historical German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg, follows the eponymous explorer as he and his assistant are guided along the Vaupes by Karamakate, a shaman who believes himself to be the last of his tribe. The second course, set several decades in the future, also features Karamakate, who now guides the American explorer Richard Evans Shultes on much the same journey. The two paths leap-frog one another, visiting the same locations separated by history, the story becomes a meditation on loss, mistaken effort, and the rotten fruits of greed. The transition between the two is effortless, whether they be super-imposed on one another or transition via seamless tracking shots, the calibre of something out of Hitchcock or Iñárritu.
Seeing this in Cambridge, there was (of course) an Anthropologist in the audience who has spent decades in just this area of Columbia. During the Q&A, he was quick to point out that the film seemed to play into the standard dichotomy, that one could either be fully indigenous, or entirely Western. This is a theme within the work, Karamakate railing against Theo, calling him nothing but a White and deriding his inability to understand the world, and, again, attacking the assistant Manduca, for wearing Western clothing and taking on their mannerisms. Guerra responded to our worthy Anthro by making clear that he did not set out to make the film as any sort of Ethnographic work – none of the plant names are reflective of real, sacred plants, none of the rituals or tribes are reflective of real peoples or their beliefs, beyond overarching, shared Amazonian myths. The character(s) of Karamakate pushes back against this dichotomy, as well – there is a scene where Theo tries to retake his stolen compass from a tribe they visit along the river, fearing that, should they learn how to use it, they will lose their idiomatic understanding of location and navigation. Karamakate smacks him down, saying that it is not for him to refuse them the knowledge. Here, we have the paragon of purity, making the argument for autonomy – even to the point of “sullying” themselves. It is their choice to make. On the other side, we do see the shaman as prejudiced against the Westerners – for all his Paternalism, Theo argues back in a separate clash that he is not here to plunder, he is a man of science, and if he does not bring back knowledge to his colleagues, his people, in Germany, they will never understand and the damage already done will prove lasting.
Both narrative streams, the early and the later, quickly become a sort-of Amazon Tale, seemingly a sub-genre of adventure in the jungle, where odd, fantastic things occur. Already mentioned was the visit to the village – there is also a stop at a Christian mission, both in the initial and the second narrative. The first has direct ramifications on the second, with choices made in the past developing into something out of Conrad – were it not one taken from the genuine history of the area, that is – with a European convinced he is Christ himself and ruling, harshly, over half-way indoctrinated natives, the product of, in Karamakate’s words, the worst of two worlds. There is an altercation with a slave in a rubber-grove, a man whose arm has been lopped off, whose left eye has been mangled, whose body is ribboned with scars, who demands, pleads, that they kill him. The imagery of that scene, the impact of it, has been on my mind all day. All of these, despite their very concrete histories, feel as if they’re viewed through the lens of magical realism, there is something on the tilt about the whole film, an additional potency that is beyond the ordinary.
Guerra stated that they worked hard to open up the forest, to make it less of the stereotypical place of terror and threat to Western eyes, than one of respect and balance – stray too far outside the bounds, and you will come to grief, but there is a path that can see you through. Both Theo and Evans quest for the sacred yakruna flower, the first for its healing powers (he is afflicted by an unknown disease, and it is only by the constant ministrations of Karamakate that he survives at all) and the second for its purported symbiosis with the rubber tree. In the first quest, the European and his assistant must abide by the prohibitions of Karamakate: it is the dry season, and they must not eat the flesh of animal or fish, must not lie with women, must not cut any tree to the roots, lest balance be over-turned. In the second, we see Karamakate lost – his people are well and truly gone, his actions ostensibly listless. It is difficult to pin down for certain how much he returns to his agency versus how much he was guiding Evans the whole journey, but it is not until they have retreaded the original path that he takes the situation in hand, cultivating the American in ways he realises he failed to for the European, due to his own distrust.
Though it needn’t be said, the performances are excellent. I counted some six languages spoken, and, while the Columbian cast will have come naturally to a few, everyone involved does a masterful job. Nilbio Torres’ performance as the young Karamakate is huge – Herculean in emotions, whether in rage or jest. Antonio Bolivár’s take on the older Karamakate is just as good, portraying the character sunk into himself after a life of frustration and defeat, yet retaining a glimmer of cunning, hinting at the Titan he was and could become once more. Neither are professional actors – drawn from the Indigenous population of the area, you can see that Guerra’s statements ring true – when they commit to something, they do it wholesale, without self-consciousness or restraint. Torres’ story is actually rather humorous – as they travelled the area trawling for the cast, Guerra’s team found that the people were only too happy to take part in the experience, to have their pictures taken, to clown around. All save for one. The whole village were ready to commit, but, of course, it was all or nothing, everyone agreeing to do it together or none at all. Despite his whole family beseeching, the man remained intransigent. Finally, he acquiesced, on the sole condition that, if he took part, it would be as the star. Sure enough, one look at the photographs taken and Guerra knew he had his Karamakate. He didn’t make the wrong choice.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to put my question to Ciro Guerra. While many questions touched on the role of and the interaction with the Indigenous of the area, I was curious to find out what sort of traction this film, and films like it, get in the wider Columbian society. Is this sort of story seen as an integral part of the national character? How does this fit in the ongoing rise in cultural consciousness throughout the greater South America? Is this the reserve of the cosmopolitan elite, as it is here in Europe, or is this something enjoyed by the average person as well? I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open for answers.
Embrace of the Serpent opens for general release this Friday. Do do your best to find a screening.