Picturehouse Community And Education Officer Ryan Powell gives us a sneak peek at today’s Discover Tuesdays film: Embrace Of The Serpent.
Director: Ciro Guerra.
Starring: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar. Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina 2015. 124 mins. Spanish with English subtitles.
With the look of a Sebastião Salgado photograph brought to life, Embrace Of The Serpent takes us on a meditative journey through the Amazon rainforest, guided physically and spiritually by shaman Karamakate, ‘The World Mover’. Two stories take place in parallel, the first at the turn of the century and the second at a time not made clear until the final act. In both, Karamakate is the reluctant protector of a white man searching for the Yakruna, a plant sought either for its healing properties or for its use in rubber purification.
Embrace Of The Serpent reverses the perspective of many other films set in the colonial era by positioning Karamakate as the protagonist. We see the westerners from his point of view – as strange, dangerous and ignorant. The film opens with Theo, an anthropologist who has been living in the jungle and become sick, and his travel companion pleading with Karamakate to help them find the Yakruna. Here it is the white man who is wretched and in need of salvation in a very literal way, and it is only through the knowledge of local people and the healing properties of the Yakruna that he may be saved. Prominence and respect are thereby given to the moral law, history and spiritual philosophies of the Amazonian people. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is that it does this without drifting into a paternalistic vision of a pristine ‘tribal’ way of life in need of protection. The film makes explicit its disdain for such attitudes in a scene in which Theo tries to retrieve his compass from a man who has stolen it, stating that he does not want the locals to forget their traditional methods of navigation. Karamakate in annoyance retorts: “Who are you to withhold knowledge?”
Thus the trope of the noble savage and the corrupting forces of modernity (think Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldo) are subverted and given nuance, although without departing from the set-up entirely. Imperialism has brutalised the Amazonian people, exploited their bodies as well as the natural environment, and destroyed their culture. In this context the value of their way of life is in need of assertion, and a little romanticism doesn’t feel like such a bad thing. The difference in this film is that the Amazonian people are acknowledged as having a history and culture of their own: they are not merely used to throw the western experience in to focus. This is demonstrated wonderfully in the appearance of a Kurtz-like figure whose Heart Of Darkness storyline is undermined by the narrative simply moving on without him. Karamakate turns from the scene of disintegrating western morality with little more than a shrug.
The film is often esoteric, its meanings communicated through myth and metaphor. Horrors are present but only glimpsed, evils are half told, solutions hinted at but obscure. Combined with the slow pace and beautiful imagery, this gives the film a decidedly dreamlike quality. It builds to a climax with a hallucinogenic explosion of colour and a cosmic vision of humanity reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As in 2001, not all meaning is on the surface; you have to let it seep in and carry you along. To paraphrase Karamakate: a river has many edges “three, five, a thousand edges”.
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