Embrace of the Serpent
Told over 30 years and in seven different languages, Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent is a poetic and insightful meditation upon human identity and man’s relationship with nature. Loosely based on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Gruenberg (Jan Bijvoet), from his 1909 expedition, and Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) from a similar trip in 1940, the film tells the story of Karamakate (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar) a shaman and member of an extinct tribe who helps both men in their search for a rare flower with mythical healing powers. On their dangerous journeys their cultural and personal differences become apparent, and each scene contributes to the director’s overall moral points about the pointlessness of material possessions and the importance of living harmoniously with the environment.
Guerra’s messages, while heavily and repeatedly stressed, are nothing if not convincing, with each scene bringing a new devastation wreaked by the colonial presence in the Amazon. From destructive rubber plantations to brutal religious oppression, each new encounter echoes the shaman’s warnings and shows mankind’s growing detachment from the natural world. These are not new concepts, but they are told here with striking conviction.
One of the most interesting visual aspects of the movie is the choice to film in black and white. The three men wander through the trees and bushes, drowning in David Gallego’s perfect widescreen and low-contrast imagery. Rather than being robbed of vitality in its absence of colour, the Amazon rainforest comes to life and appears even more lush in grayscale, becoming as much of a complete living entity as any of the men. Karamakate is in himself fascinating. Wary and volatile as a young man, filled with regret about the loss of his people and unwilling to trust any white stranger, he ages into a world-weary sage, ruling over his patch of forest like a stony-faced god, one of the most complex characters seen on film this year.
Despite Guerra’s keen sense of space and editing, some of his recurring ideas begin to drag as the film nears its over two-hour mark. But its clear script and contemplative tone means that barely a second is wasted, and one can hardly argue with the aims. It is a sobering insight into a history which is still being made, and one which acts as a warning as much as it is a piece of art.
Embrace of the Serpent does not have a UK release date yet. This is part of the Journey competition in the 59th London Film Festival.
Watch the trailer for Embrace of the Serpent here: