Embrace of the Serpent

 

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The lives and beliefs of the native peoples on the banks of the Colombian Amazon are vividly recreated in this drama filmed on location.

 
Embrace of the Serpent

 

This is the fourth feature film by the Colombian director Ciro Guerra whose work has not previously been released here. With assistance from Jacques Toulemonde he has written a screenplay that draws on the diaries of two European scientists who visited South America and met its native inhabitants while searching for the Yakruna plant. The first of these visitors was Theodor Koch-Gruenberg who was there around 1907 and Richard Evans Schultes followed in his footsteps in the 1940s.

 

The film that portrays this is not without distant echoes of Werner Herzog’s celebrated Fitzcarraldo (1982), not least when a gramophone record is played in the jungle, but Guerra dramatically reverses the perspective by presenting things from the viewpoint of an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate. He is a young man in the early1900s and reappears as his older self in the 1940s. The luminous black and white photography in ’Scope by David Gallego brings unity to a work which, cutting back and forth in time, unites the events of these two distinct periods. Nevertheless, the film plays like a work of two halves.

 

The first half is great. It allows us to see the world through Karamakate’s eyes but also presents the visitors in a way that makes them largely stand apart from those exploiting the natives be it by seeking rubber or by imposing their Christian religion by force. Indeed, both Theodor and Karamakate eventually come to recognise their role in expressing and passing on the culture of the region. Furthermore, if Theodor resists abandoning his own ways, Evan (as Schultes is called in the film) is encouraged to throw away his baggage and dream dreams under the influence of the psychedelic plant tacked down by Karamakate. The film suggests that whatever our backgrounds we need to ponder life beyond its materialistic side.

 

However, the second half is in general considerably more complex and confused, starting with a sequence set in the later period when an established mission site has been taken over by a mad messiah who believes that he personally is the son of God. One wonders to what extent the real-life diaries have been left behind at this point and, while retaining its visual splendour, the film becomes increasingly unclear as to what it wants to say leaving me for one sadly aware that it has failed to maintain the standard of the first half. Nevertheless, this film, if ultimately deeply frustrating, is remarkable and unique and all the roles well cast.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, Luigi Sciamanna, Yauenkü Migue, Nicolás Cancino.

 

Dir Ciro Guerra, Pro Cristina Gallego, Rául Bravo, Esteban Mentasti and others, Screenplay Ciro Guerra with Jacques Toulemonde, Ph David Gallego, Pro Des Angélica Perea, Ed Etienne Boussac, Music Nascuy Linares, Costumes Catherine Rodríguez.

 

Buffalo Films/Buffalo Producciones/Caracol Televisión etc.- Peccadillo Pictures.
124 mins. Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina. 2015. Rel: 10 June 2016. Cert. 12A.