Embrace of the Serpent
Powerful mysticism drives tale of the Amazon
Directed by Ciro Guerra
Written by Ciro Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde
124 minutes, rated M
It’s a while since anyone went up a big river with a camera and a big idea, but it never gets old. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set the pattern for western story-telling, in which the perspective is that of the explorer, but there’s another viewpoint – that of the people who are visited, or more often, plundered.
Embrace of the Serpent creates something magical and mystical out of this idea. It was shot in the northwest Amazon in Colombia, in black and white and on 35mm film, and it is surely one of the most beautiful films in a long time. The director, Ciro Guerra, is Colombian and crazily ambitious. Not as crazy perhaps as Werner Herzog, who went up another branch of the Amazon in 1982 to make Fitzcarraldo, but no less enraptured by the river, no less awed by the people.
Herzog told a story of European madness, driven by the greed of the rubber barons of the 19th century. Those same forces are present in this story, but their legacy is much more malignant, without romance. The film is partly an elegy for the many tribes and languages that have disappeared since white men started to arrive on the river.
Guerra tells a story in parallel time frames, 30 years apart. One good story is usually stronger than two stories in parallel, but it works in this case because one of the characters is in both. In 1909, Belgian explorer Theodore von Martius (Jan Bijvoet) comes in search of a plant he believes can cure his illness – the mythical Yakruna plant. He asks a young shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) to help him find it. The plant is reputed to be used only by the Cohiuano people, Karamakate’s own (fictional) tribe. ‘The Cohiuano don’t exist any more,’ says Karamakate. ‘You killed them. I won’t help you’. He relents and joins Theo and his devoted native assistant Manduca (Yauenku Migue), because he wants to know if any of his people survived. They set off up river in a long canoe, overloaded with equipment.
In the second story, 30 years later, American ethno-botanist Evan (Brionne Davis) comes looking for an old shaman, mentioned in the journals of the late Theodore von Martius. Karamakate is still alive, but he calls himself an empty shell, a hermit living in despair. He joins Evan in a quest to retrace the old Belgian explorer’s path. Evan’s motives are unclear. He has devoted his life to the study of plants – something that old Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) respects. The old shaman sees his own path to redemption up river.
The script is based on the journals of two real explorers: the German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg, and the American father of ethno-botany, Richard Evans Schultes, although heavily fictionalised. Some of the film’s mysticism is nutty, but it serves Guerra’s purpose, to get inside the history and attitudes of the people along the river, through a span of time. Thus, we encounter a religious community made up of small boys orphaned by the rubber barons. In 1909, they are tended by a wide-eyed Spanish monk who’s insane; 30 years later, the isolation and deprivation have produced a full-blown murderous cult, led by a religious maniac. In 1909, Theo and Karamakate arrive into the middle of a border war, as Colombian soldiers fight the Venezuelans for a patch of rubber-rich jungle. Most of the dead are innocent villagers.
Guerra directs the film with great clarity. The river sequences are simply awesome, in the beauty and power of the settings, and in David Gallego’s majestic cinematography. When the explorers come ashore, in either time frame, we get a sense of chaos, bloodshed, decay and distress. Some of this has been done in the name of God, but God is a long time gone. It’s just madness and greed and death now, following in the wake of ‘civilisation’.
The mysticism and the performances of the two men playing Karamakate give the film its power, which is considerable. It is both a lament for what has been lost in the Amazon, and an eye-opener for what is still there. Guerra succeeds in taking us into his mythological version of reality, while dramatising the horror of the real history. That’s a major achievement.