Embrace of the Serpent (12A)
DIRECTED BY: Ciro Guerra
STARRING: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
This extraordinary, hypnotic work by Colombian director Ciro Guerra seems at first glance to be a dreamy inversion of the themes of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, turning a generic heart of darkness into a crucible of light, as seen from the perspective of indigenous Amazonian tribespeople. Mixing fact and fiction in fable-like fashion, Guerra’s third feature (which secured Colombia’s first Oscar nomination for best foreign language film) offers both a bold indictment of colonial imperialism and a powerful celebration of disappearing cultures.
Described by its creator as “an attempt to build a bridge between western and Amazonian storytelling”, this achieves an astonishing sense of universality while focusing on a world from which most viewers have traditionally been alienated. Shot on location in the jungles of Vaupés, but with none of the cultural tourism that often blights such projects, Guerra’s honest, impassioned, inventive film coils itself around its audience in a transcendent cinematic embrace.
Although fictional, the screenplay by Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde draws on the journals of two real-life explorers: German ethnobotanist Theodor Koch-Grünberg and American botanist Richard Evans Schultes. Versions of both figures appear in the bifurcated narrative, which intertwines two tales of white explorers, separated by decades, venturing into the Colombian Amazon. Jan Bijvoet is Théodor von Martius, a Herzogian figure in search of the healing yakruna plant, which may cure him of a fatal illness. Brionne Davis is Evan, a man who does not dream, and who hopes that the same plant may somehow heal his ailing soul.
Our true focus, however, is Karamakate, the warrior-shaman who guides both men, played in his younger, more fiery years by Nilbio Torres, and in dissolute later life by Antonio Bolívar. Having lost his tribe, believed to have been wiped out by rubber barons, the ageing Karamakate fears that he has become a “chullachaqui” – an ‘empty, hollow’ version of himself that has “no memories”, but “drifts around in the world… lost in time without time”. Crucially, it is through Karamakate’s eyes that we come to view the unfolding narrative, reversing the colonial modes that have exoticised the jungle as merely a maddening subset of European or north American experience.
Skilfully fusing the apparently logical manmade narratives of its western explorers with the animal imagery and fluid time-structures of Amazonian myth (the title invokes celestial beings descending to earth on a giant anaconda), Guerra conjures a complex landscape that straddles the divide between dreamy invention, ethnographic document and socio-political tract. “You are not one – you are two men,” Karamakate tells Evan as he retraces Théo’s steps, apparently perceiving his separate companions to be two incarnations of the same soul. Such coexistence is central to the film’s own form, with images of persistent water uniting distant time periods; past, present and future flowing together in a single unending stream, separate boats on the same river.
Memories (both present and absent) flow back and forth through this story. When Théo and his companion Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) seek supplies at an upriver Catholic mission, they find “orphans of the rubber wars” being beaten into forgetting their native tongue by a priest who claims to be saving them from “cannibalism and ignorance”. “Don’t let our song fade away,” Karamakate tells the young boys, a phrase mournfully echoed in the closing dedication. Music is a key element, with Evan refusing to abandon the clumsy gramophone that reconnects him with his own ancestry, even as he strives to become the “vagabond of dreams” of whom Karamakate has spoken so intensely. Nascuy Linares’s complex compositions mix what sound like field recordings of indigenous song with more contemporary instrumentation, blending seamlessly with Carlos García’s natural, ambient sound design.
David Gallego’s breathtaking 35mm cinematography lends widescreen monochrome beauty, even during a horrifying sequence in which a Kurtzian figure declares himself to be “the messiah and saviour of the Indians – the only sacred thing in this jungle!”
“This is a memory, a moment that passed,” says Théo of the photographs he takes, and one might conclude that Guerra’s moving picture is just that – an evocation of something that has gone, remaining only in ghostly form. Yet there is such vivid life in this film; an artifice perhaps (Guerra’s work echoes some of the philosophies, if not the forms, of Chilean film-maker Patricio Guzmán’s documentaries) but as real and vibrant as anything I have seen on screen. I was utterly mesmerised, captivated and transported.
Mark Kermode - The Observer
FRIDAY 7 APRIL 2017
Doors: 7.30pm Film 8pm
Rotten Tomatoes - 85%
The Guardian - ★★★★★
The Telegraph - ★★★★
The Independent - ★★★★
The Times - ★★★★