Embrace of the serpent artwork by mister G

Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace of the serpent artwork by mister GDirector: Ciro Guerra / Screenplay: Ciro Guerra (from Theodor Koch-Grünberg & Richard Evans Schultes diaries) / Editing: Etienne Boussac / DP: David Gallego / Music: Nascuy Linares

Cast: Nilbio Torres / Antonio Bolivar / Jan Bijvoet / Brionne Davis / Miguel Dionisio Ramos / Luigi Sciamanna  

Year: 2015



 A Trip Through the Undiscovered Country


The Amazonian night sky might be crowded with stars, but there are none to speak of, in Embrace of the Serpent.

That ‘Green Hell’ might actually be bursting with every [other] colour of the rainbow, but this picture’s resolutely Black & White.

It’s also subtitled, from the original Spanish & Indigenous tongues. There’s little plot to speak of and the setting – dense virgin forest, rivers & tributaries – is more familiar as a backdrop for a David Attenborough monologue. Isn’t it?

And yet… As Ciro Guerra’s film unfolds, it weaves its magic. Prejudices over what we believe constitute a film ‘worth watching’ fall away; forgotten, as we’re transported in time and place, to somewhere other.  

Guerra’s a Columbian film-maker, whose filmography prior to Embrace’, dealt with various aspects of the country’s infamous narcotics trade; its impact on the lives of ‘ordinary’ Columbian society. However, Embrace’ represents a marked step-change in Guerra’s style. I’ve already mentioned the B&W and low-key narrative, but in-service to what Guerra’s aiming for, I think he’s pulled a masterstroke, here. Though tooled for Film Festivals and a subsequent run on the art-house circuit, the film deserves to be seen by a wide audience and kudos to Peccadillo Pictures for having picked this one up.

GlassesThe ‘White-Man’ has been exploring Amazonia for centuries; driven to study its anthropology, ethnography or simply to exploit its diversity. Now given to converting tracts of primeval rainforest into mono-cultured farmland, the pattern shows no sign of slowing-down. The forest has been given a monetary value by an international capitalist system, intent on placing ‘value’ on everything once enjoyed freely. And when there’s no forest left? We’ll be squabbling over the scrub…

Guerra understands this, responding in the only way he could as a film-maker: but a mere film can’t change our minds. Can it? 

Can a film make us stop. And think?

For his starting point, Guerra chose the travel diaries of two such explorers: the German, Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872 – 1924) and an American, Richard Evans Schultes (1915 – 2001), both pioneers in broadening our understanding of the indigenous peoples (Grünberg) and the region’s botany (Schultes). From their combined accounts, Guerra wrote a loose narrative in which Evan is re-tracing Theo’s journey, some thirty years later. He seeks a specific (and rare) plant specimen – ‘Yakruna’ – known for both its hallucinogenic potency as much as its apparent ability to enrich the purity of natural rubber (this from a time before rubber was synthesised and plastics came into widespread use). 

To find it, Evan contacts an indigenous Indian called Karamakate (‘Kara’); an enigmatic, shamanic figure and the last of his tribe. Together, they will track-down another survivor: the last example of the revered Yakruna, that grows atop a startling cinder-cone of a mountain that rises from the jungle. Kara has destroyed all, bar this isolated example believing that, given its abrupt disconnect with the natural world, mankind no longer ‘deserves’ to partake of its mind-bending ‘Ayahuascan’ properties.

To Kara, everything has a story to tell, be it a pebble, a tree frog or Yakruna. To lose that connection represents a tragic, irreversible disconnect between our bodies-as-vessels and the souls that live within them; a theme that runs through Guerra’s picture like an artery.

GlassesBut Evan lays in the future. First, we have Theo’s story. Racked with what I took to be malaria, he’s in the back of a dugout canoe, punted by his aide Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos). They approach the riverbank, whilst observed by a wary, lone figure. This turns out to be the younger Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), who’s also referred to by Manduca as ‘The World Mover’. Manduca needs Kara’s help in curing Theo. He explains to the skeptical shaman, that Theo is regarded ‘amongst his own people’ for the understanding he has of the forest and its tribes. Kara remains unmoved until he notices a necklace worn by Theo, that comes from his own tribe, long-believed by him to have been ‘lost’. With a mumbled lucidity, Theo explains that Kara is mistaken and that his people still live. If healed, he can lead Kara back to them: thus is the engine of Guerra’s script set in-motion.

The Flemish actor Jan Bijvoet plays Theo with a subtle, nuanced tone that somehow combines a deferential respect for the indigenous peoples he encounters along the way, with unceasing curiosity. Thanks to Guerra’s script, Theo never forgets his purpose for being in the forest in the first place, yet Bijvoet infuses him with such humanity, we are invested in his journey.

We’re ten minutes in and already, Embrace’ is unlike anything I’ve watched in-years. By comparison, the recent Lost City of Z (2016) feels too contrived and uncertain in its footing. About the closest film I can think of, is Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972) or Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006); a film that’s closer, in some ways, than you might think… Another to consider, is Daniel Nettheim’s tender, elegiac The Hunter (2011) in which Willem Dafoe gets lost in the woods, in search of… Answers. 

In these pictures, it seems as though everyone’s looking for them.

GlassesAs Kara, Manduca & Theo make their way ‘up-river’, another obvious parallel suggests itself: Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) which transposed Joseph Conrad’s novel about a river voyage up the Congo, in-search of ‘the Heart of Darkness’ and dropped it into war-torn Vietnam. As in Coppola’s film, our heroes will experience a visceral array of emotions, prompted by what they encounter. A missionary school for native boys, turns-out to be one such pivotal stop-over, as does a visit to a tribe known to Theo. This ends on a sour note, when its chief ‘steals’ Theo’s precious compass. Though it’s retrieved, any conviviality is lost, perhaps for good. Theo wants the tribe to retain their innate knowledge of celestial navigation. He’s an anthropologist, after all. He can see how easy it is, for a tribe to lose its connection to the world surrounding them; he’s seen what happens when people ‘stop putting names to things’… Kara offers a different perspective, saying it’s wrong for Theo to deny the Chief, saying: ‘Knowledge belongs to all men!’And of course, it does. 

It is a passionate statement, but Theo’s torn between the past and the future; between impartiality and interference. 

Manduca, too, is beginning to understand his place in the World. Theo liberated him from a past life as a rubber-plantation slave. Now a free man, he’s chosen to help this White-Man, rather than be a slave for others; a distinction that reveals Manduca to possess a wider hinterland than the writing allows. For all that, when confronted by familiar elements of his past, be they literal or suggested, Manduca’s responses suggest a residual anger still unresolved. Mistrusting both Theo and Manduca is, of course, Karamakate. Played by non-professional actor Nilbio Torres – a native of Columbia’s Vaupés province, along with the other non-Professional actors – the young Kara is a beguiling screen presence. Wearing nothing but a modest loincloth (and, later, a beautiful headdress comprised of white bird feathers), Torres commands every second of screen-time. There’s a look about him. A shade of the unknowable. A vague sense that this talismanic character – as portrayed – really IS an adept of the ‘old ways’.

GlassesThe camera loves him, too. DP David Gallego’s lens sometimes feels ‘invisible’ as it scans the blank tree-line or glances at Kara. In Gallego’s hands, the film is a sensorial overload. Had it been shot in-colour, its impact would’ve been reduced yet, in B&W, the ‘colours seem brighter’, thanks to our own imaginations. We’re having to work harder to ‘see’ the film, but any sense of effort soon fades, to leave us bathed in the spectacle. Tones are richly textured, layered and beautifully lit. The effect is painterly. 

I also want to mention the sparse – almost ambient – electronic score by Nascuy Linares, that shouldn’t work in this context, yet harmonises and elevates the imagery. With elements of indigenous chants & songs, it reminded me at-times, of work done in the Nineties by ‘Deep Forest’. It works on its own counter-pointed merits; brushing-off comparisons with any number of ‘New-Age’ meditation pieces…

The film is spliced at a few points with Evan’s tale. He’s played by Brionne Davis and though perfectly ‘okay’ in the role, I got a sense of ‘discomfited reserve’ from his performance, as though the shoot’s undoubted privations were having an effect. Then again, perhaps it was a deliberate quality brought to Davis’ performance, to suggest differences in aptitude between Theo & Evan? The film’s Third Act drags as a result of Davis’ inertia, but is lifted by Antonio Bolivar as the elder Karamakate. Bolivar straddled with ease, the demands of a role requiring a believable connection between two versions of Kara’s life; one young, one old. He’s playful. Tricksy. And more than a match for Evan’s inevitable – and disappointing – duplicity.

Guerra uses Evan’s journey to revisit the missionary school, now an apocalyptic-messianic cult, long-divorced from its theological foundation. This sequence, while not especially graphic in any way, presented the film’s most enduring and potent imagery, in its depiction of that which Kara feared all along: as a place where Man finds himself, when he’s divorced from the World and where he believes himself to be God incarnate; ‘A Master of the Universe’. This notion links to a later sequence, when Evan reveals the one possession he’s loathe to part with. It’s a gramophone player, that seemingly has but one disc: Haydn’s Creation. One is profane, the other is beautiful, yet both are reaching for that unknown union with the infinite…

GlassesThere’s more to the film, of course. Much, much more (including a full-on homage to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), but I’m reluctant to give too much away. Instead, I can only urge you to be dazzled by this ‘road-movie’ yourself. 

‘Road movie?’ Of course. There might be a literal river, instead of one made with asphalt, and the trio are in a canoe, but they could just as easily be in a VW camper. In time-honoured fashion, they’re even in-pursuit of a ‘McGuffin’, in the form of Yakruna: the driving incentive at the heart of an otherwise flimsy plot. Like any self-aware road-movie, it’s not about the destination, but rather, the journey and what our protagonists learn along the way, about each other as much as themselves. 

A journey represents a chance of unexpected turns, as synchronicities unfold before us. 

Guerra’s beautiful, thought-provoking film will linger in the memory because of what it is as much as what it represents. The ‘Serpent’, is the spiritual father of the ever-coiling river. To travel upon it, is to blend with its mysteries and be held within its embrace, just as I was for one hundred and twenty minutes; the snow outside, forgotten…

You’re not having anything, until you decide to listen.

Embrace of the Serpent  Triple Word / Score: REMARKABLE / OUTLIER / ELEGIAC / EIGHT

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