April 29 — May 05
Embrace of the Serpent
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
Historical accounts of Europe’s devastating cultural and physical impact on the Amazonian rain forest and the native peoples inhabiting the region are generally sincere, hand-wringing, and appropriately apologetic. They also tend to make the European invasion seem like an impulsive spasm of xenophobia, imperialist brutality, and religious bigotry—a regrettable epoch in white society’s history books. Movies naturally favor violent action and black-and-white morality; the decades-long process of environmental and cultural eradication isn’t cinematic enough. Director Ciro Guerra has managed to create a fresh new look at exploitation and colonialism in South America because it emphasizes the process over the “climactic” event. The movie alternates between two timelines divided by about 40 years. One storyline centers on botanist Theo (Jan Bijvoet) who becomes ill while travelling down the Amazon in 1909 seeking the mysterious “yakruna” plant. The other storyline concerns Evan (Brionne Davis), an American explorer seeking the same plant. Connecting the stories is a shaman named Karamakate, played in the earlier story by Nilbio Torres and in the later one by Antonio Bolivar. He becomes a guide for both Theo and Evan, though his experience with Theo has made him reluctant to help another white man, no matter how outwardly friendly he is. When travelling with Theo, Karamakate was partially persuaded by the promise of finding other members of his tribe—he had believed himself to be the last survivor. What he learns has helped turn him into what Evan finds: a “chullachaqui,” or restless spirit doomed to wander the earth without past or future. Karamakate might be a literal ghost as well, but in Guerra’s haunting film, it doesn’t really matter: in the Amazon, reality and illusion merge as seamlessly as the sky and sun and land and river in many of cinematographer David Gallego’s beautiful establishing shots. The look of the film—shot in gorgeous 35 mm black and white—is the key to its power. Both storylines inhabit a netherworld where it’s hard to tell if this is really what happened, or what Karamakate remembers happening. Again, it makes little difference. The emotional resonances are authentic. We see the physical and psychic damage done to native children by rabid, single-minded missionaries. We see ironic vestiges of the ruin that European rubber plantations made of the land and the lives of the people who’d once lived in harmony with it. Based on the journals of real-life explorers Theodor Koch-Grünberg (fictionalized as “Theo” here) and Richard Evans Schultes (“Evan”), Embrace of the Serpent achieves a documentary realism that peers through its dream-like surface, as though we were seeing re-creations of events experienced in a feverish state. The effect doesn’t dampen the outrage or horror of what Karamakate’s kinsmen experienced; in fact, it replicates the disassociation that Karamakate has been left with—a feeling of being cut off not only from family and tribe and traditions, but from the world itself. Guerra and co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal don’t set out to shock viewers, but to make us contemplate what Karamakate—and by extension, other displaced people like him, including those in our own country—must be going through. The performances are simple, unaffected, and powerful, from both the professional as well as the non-professional actors. Guerra’s film is more consciously “artistic” than bluntly political, but it does achieve a cumulatively powerful impact through its parallel excursions into the Heart of Darkness. Both journeys help develop Karamakate’s character, revealing a complex personality that’s far more subtle and cunning than the “inscrutable wise native” stereotype even the best-intentioned movies insist on providing. Karamakate isn’t a victim or a naïf undone by his ignorance of white men’s ways. His relationships with Theo and Evan change constantly, with the native guide exerting authority of his own at times, refusing to play the pandering servant. One of the first feature films shot in the Amazon since Werner Herzog visited the area in Fitzcarraldo over 30 years ago, Guerra shows us sights that stimulate the imagination, yet never neglects the intimate human drama occurring on the boats that make the journey. Indeed, it’s the tension between Karamakate and his white companions that drives the film, provides psychological nuance, and subtle commentary on fundamental cultural differences. Embrace of the Serpent lives up to its exotic title—but it’s the mysteriousness of the human mind which pumps life into this seemingly familiar material, making this Oscar-nominated movie from Colombia one of the most memorable epics of recent years.
(Rated R for nudity, violence, drug use, and adult themes; in Spanish and Portuguese with English subtitles.)
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