Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)

Ain't no mountain high enough.

Ain’t no mountain high enough.

(2015) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenkű Migue, Nicolás Cancino, Luigi Sciamanna. Directed by Ciro Guerra

 

The journeys we undertake aren’t always the journeys we intend to make. We see ourselves as searching for something, but it isn’t always what we’re searching for that we’re destined to find.

This black and white masterpiece is the story of Karamakate, a native of the Amazonian rain forest who as a young man (Torres) removed himself from his tribe after white Imperialists, on the hunt for rubber, essentially massacred most of them. When a German scientist named Theo van Martius (Bijvoet) arrives at his hut, asking for help in locating yakruna, a plant with reputed medicinal qualities that might save him from the disease that is killing him. Karamakate, with a severe mistrust of whites, is disinclined to assist but Theo’s aide Manduca (Migue), also a native, implores the shaman Karamakate gives in.

Forty years later, an aged Karamakate (Bolivar) encounters another scientist, this one named Evan (Davis) who is searching for yakruna to gain knowledge rather than for any professed self-interest. By this age, the shaman is less aggressive in his dislike for Europeans and agrees to accompany Evan on the journey to find the plant, although he believes Evan already knows where it is – because Karamakate has begun to forget.

This is a movie that takes its cues from such disparate sources as Apocalypse Now!, Fitzcarraldo and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Joseph Conrad would most certainly have approved. The journey into the jungle is one that filmmakers and writers have been fascinated with for a long time, of civilized men venturing into places where no modern civilization exists. We’ve often seen these movies through the viewpoints of the outsiders; here, we are seeing the story of one of the natives, one disillusioned with the world that is changing into something that he realizes will destroy his people and his culture – even the eternal jungle itself.

He chose to film this in black and white, and forego the vibrant colors of the rain forest. Some might think he’s absolutely nuts for doing this, but I think it’s a brilliant move. By going black and white, he brings the film to its own essence and refuses to dazzle us and distract us with the vivid colors of the Amazon. The waters become murky and as ink; the shadows deepen and the light becomes more vivid. We are left instead to ponder the journey itself rather than the scenery.

Memory is another theme to the movie, as Karamakate grows older he is unable to interpret the glyphs on the side of his hut, or remember things like where the last yakruna is growing. There are various encounters that lead the filmmaker to posit that the cultures of the Amazon are forgetting themselves as the incursion of Europeans into the delta have driven cultural memory out in the insatiable urge for exploitation and profit.

The acting, much of it by natives of the Colombian rainforest, is natural. We never get a sense of people playing roles as much as people inhabiting them. The mesmerizing script is the story here as we see the results of colonialism, toxic to the Europeans as it was to the natives albeit not in the same way. The movie is based on the diaries of two real life explorers of roughly the same era as depicted here. The only misstep is a psychedelic sequence (the only color sequence in the film) near the end of the movie. It doesn’t really add anything and seems to be more of a tip of the hat to Stanley Kubrick than anything else.

This is a powerful movie, one that takes you on a journey into the heart of darkness and populates it with taciturn forest dwellers, brutal priests, broken slaves and messianic madmen. This Oscar nominee really didn’t get the kind of buzz that other movies, backed by bigger studios, received but it deserved its place at the table. Definitely one of the best movies of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A haunting and powerful treatise. Gorgeous black and white photography. Treats natives with respect.
REASONS TO STAY: A psychedelic sequence near the end (the only color in the film) is ill-advised.
FAMILY VALUES: Some aboriginal nudity, a little bit of violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from Columbia to make the final nominations for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apocalypse Now!
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: A Space Program

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