EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015) review
written by: Ciro Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
produced by: Cristina Gallego
directed by: Ciro Guerra
runtime: 125 min.
release date: May 15, 2015 (Cannes), February 17 & March 11, 2016 (limited)
The five films nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards this year were a better assembly of films than the ones nominated in the Best Picture category. Now, that may not seem all that strange to point out for those film enthusiasts in the know or anyone who’s been paying close attention to Oscar picks over the years. It’s nevertheless important to pick out since most moviegoers have never even heard of the nominees in this category – plus, the films are hard to find. They either make it to art-house theaters in major cities for a week or two at the end of the year in order to qualify for awards or they wind up getting a theatrical run once the Oscars are over. The latter can be said about the exquisite “Embrace of the Serpent”, the first-ever nominee from Colombia.
Although there are two time periods presented in “Embrace of the Serpent” – 1909 and 1940 – they both have in a common character as the heart of each story. He is a stoic shaman named Karamakate (played as a young man by Nilbio Torres), a lone survivor of his people who is approached by a canoe floating toward the bank of the river, manned by Maduca (Yauenkü Migue), an assistant to an ill white man, named Theodore von Martius (Jan Bijvoet of “Borgman” and “The Broken Circle Breakdown”), a scientist who speaks the local dialect. The characters make for an interesting sight together – one is a gangly bearded German, another is a native in white man’s clothing and then there’s this erect figure with a painted face and feathered armbands in a loincloth. Manduca pleads with the shaman to save his white friend’s life, but Karamakate wants no part of it, having contempt toward the white man for erased his entire tribe and for a local native who travels in the man’s company.
When a weak Theo offers the shaman a change to reunite with the survivors of his tribe, Karamakate cautiously agrees to treat Theo and serve as a guide to find the location of an indigenous plant that offers unique healing qualities. All of this transpires before the title of the film, “El abrazo de la serpiente”, can be read and what viewers have is a strong introduction to three of the film’s main characters – acted with a genuine authenticity, especially from Torres.
Then we quietly fastfoward to an older Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolívar), who is once again greeted by a visitor in a canoe – this time it’s another bearded white man named Evan (Brionne Davis), a self-described plant enthusiast who carries with him Theo’s journal that details his travels here some forty years prior. Just like before, Evan wants to be guided by Karamakate to the location of the rare plant, hoping to preserve it. As we navigate back-and-forth in time by way of Karamakate’s reflections, the two periods add perspective and an understanding to the character and their environment as well as the traditions and beliefs of the different tribes they encounter.
The change in actors who portray Karamakate is necessary and affective – showing distinctive changes in the character over time. There are some obvious physical and internal changes to the character – the older version of the isn’t as in shape nor hotheaded as the younger, whose passion and mystical superstition causes him to be both re-active and militant. Torres and Bolívar impress in their acting debuts, feeling like they could naturally be a younger and older version of the same person, both observant to their surrounding actors, yet offering calculated and deliberate responses.
Colombian writer/director Ciro Guerra filmed “Embrace of the Serpent” in the story’s element, along the Amazon river and its shores and tributaries. One usually thinks of the dark greens of the foliage and the brown dense river, but the choice to shoot the film in mostly black-and-white accentuates the sharpness of textures and heightens the light contrasts, while also giving the film a historical, oversized coffee table feel to it. Guerra’s screenplay is influenced by the journals of two real-life explorer/scientists, Theodor Koch-Grünberg from Germany and Richard Evans Schultes from America, both of whom traveled the Colombian portion of the Amazon during different time period, in search of the rare Yakruna plant, believed to have psychedelic or healing qualities.
As beautiful as the cinematography it by David Gallego, what adds to the mysteries and unpredictable nature of the Amazon is the magnetic sound design by Carlos Garcia. Both artists are balanced and intuitive, always in service of the story and the appropriate tone and feel needed to deliver Guerra’s story. Yet the most absorbing aspect of “Embrace of the Serpent” is the film’s characters, especially Manduco and Karamakate, who each have a different relationship with the white men they escort. During their respective journeys, the situations and people these two encounter wind up providing viewers with their viewpoint of historical moments, such as colonization by white men, genocide and the brainwashing by religious zealots high on their own stir-crazy egos. Most of those encounters result in the travelers witnessing horrifying behavior, which is where we find Guerra delving into an understandable nightmarish use of the medium.
Overall, Guerra’s storytelling evokes a stirring authenticity and tangible urgency about it. There have been previous films centered on the white man disrupting South American jungle life – “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” and “The Mission” come to mind – yet it’s rare that a film allows viewers to get in the head of a lead Amazonian (the last time we had something close to that was Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”, as far as I know, but those characters weren’t Amazonians), making “Embrace of the Serpent” a welcome and new viewing experience. The story could almost be viewed as a “Heart of Darkness” from a non-white perspective, minus the overt insanity. Granted, there are times when the film’s tone veers off into something decidedly different, maybe even switching genres, but it still is true to the shock or emotional response the characters in a particular moment. Nothing felt forced or pretentious.
Now, I’m still undecided on whether or not we needed the film to close with a “2001” colorful kaleidoscope ride to cap off a film with an otherwise subdued aura. That’s not really much of a reservation though for a film that is so artfully and confidently packaged. Without a doubt, the creation of the film had to be arduous, but Guerra makes it look kind of effortless. What will remain with me though is the fascinating character of Karamakate (at either age), a man with a surprisingly hearty laugh, one who laments his loneliness and yet offers each white man a chance to see life beyond their own respective limitations.