Embrace of the Serpent, directed by Ciro Guerra and nominated for the 2015 Academy Award for best foreign language film, is a phenomenal work of cinema that stands out in a marketplace full of safe and predictable movies, remakes and sequels. The director decided to shoot his feature in black and white and on film stock, both of which are very unique and brave choices these days. Embrace of the Serpent is loosely based on the diaries of two scientists – Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes – who explored the foreign landscape of the Amazon about a generation apart. The movie beautifully melds breathtaking imagery with a strong and complex story reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899) and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). The movie implements the same themes of alienation and the clash of cultures but in an even more subtle and naturalistic fashion. It draws upon works that came before it but in the end stands as its own unique work. Embrace of the Serpent will undoubtedly be admired and emulated by other directors in the future.
The plot seems quite simple at first. Reading the back of the DVD or a plot summary online one might think it is a simple “Quest” or “Journey” story but the film is far more than the sum of its parts. Set in the early 1900s, the story follows Karamakate (the younger played by Nilbio Torres) – a shaman of a mysterious Amazon tribe – and Theo (Jan Bijvoet) – a sickly explorer and scientist – as they begin a voyage through the vast mosaic of rivers and dense jungle in search of Karamakate’s lost tribe and a rare flower that may be able to heal Theo’s sickness. This plot arc is supplemented with another story that once again follows Karamakate (the elder played by Antonio Bolivar Salvador) but forty years later as he leads another young explorer named Evan (Brionne Davis) down the same river in search of the same rare and illusive flower. These actors are truly tested, traversing dense jungle, steep mountain passes and white water rapids. Though the film is a journey story, it unfolds like a myth. As in the Iliad and the Odyssey, every encounter and each new location has meaning and impacts the plot and themes of the story.
In some ways the flower that the protagonists seek acts as a “MacGuffin,” a plot point that is used to move the story and the protagonists forward yet in reality is not the most significant aspect of the film. Though the flower is an important driving force, it is the journey that is far more important to the film than the final destination. In the very opening shots of the film it is clear that the natural order is clashing with the man-made order. The beauty of nature is counter balanced with the brutality of man. The rubber trade leaves literal scars on the rain forest and on the native people who inhabit it. In one scene Karamakate and Theo come across a stand of trees in the forest. The trees are being bled of their sap which will be sold as rubber. It is here that they are confronted by a man who has obviously been badly tortured and forced into labor by the “rubber barons.” Both the man and the trees have been disfigured and “bled.” He begs them to kill him rather than be tortured further. Though the jungle holds many terrors and dangers, the film shows that mankind is the greatest threat.
Religion also plays a very large role in the film. Paganist views are counter balanced by encroaching Christianity. The tribes that call the jungle home strike a careful balance with the rain forest. They coexist by helping one another survive and prosper. As part of their belief system, they obey strict regulations of what can be eaten and when to ensure that the rain forest is not depleted of its resources. Christianity, in comparison, is displayed as both brutal and invasive. For example, Theo and Karamakate come across a church on the bank of the river where local boys from various tribes have been kidnapped and are being “westernized.” The priest is a fanatical sadist who believes he can save souls through brutalization of the flesh. Karamakate tries to instruct some of the boys in the “old ways” in an effort to save them. During his later journey with Evan, we revisit the mission and learn that whatever good intentions might have existed at its founding have been utterly perverted and insanity prevails.
Science is Theo and Evan’s religion. It is their answer to all the important questions. Yet science provides few answers on their journeys. Both men confess to Karamakate that they cannot dream and never have. Karamakate believes that it is through dreams that we truly see and makes it his mission to prove this to them. The scientists are also weighed down by their earthly possessions: boxes of supplies, detailed notes, tools and cameras. They present an absurd image, traveling precariously upon the rough waters of the river in a shallow canoe or laboring through the tangled dripping jungle with baggage that they can barely manage. Karamakate, in comparison, is nearly naked and carries only his blow gun. He moves easily and confidently over land and water. Science is depicted as something that clouds your judgement and blinds you to what is right before your eyes. As scientists, Theo and Evan cannot dream and choose not to see what they cannot believe. It is almost like color blindness. How can you imagine a color you have never seen?
The brilliant and breathtaking cinematography of David Gallego, who won the Premio Fénix and Platino Awards for his work on this film, pulls the viewer into the jungle, a place of both beauty and danger. You almost feel as though you are in a dream, drifting across the landscape with the characters of the film, your surroundings familiar yet at the same time alien. The black and white palette coupled with the jungle’s splendor make for an incredible viewing experience. At times scenes in the film look like paintings, based on reality yet somehow removed from it. In this film the setting and nature are treated as a character. On the surface, Embrace of the Serpent depicts two journeys into the depths of the jungle in search of a rare and sacred flower, yet it acts as a means for the protagonists to grow as human beings. None of the film feels contrived. Ciro Guerra did an incredible job putting his own unique stamp on the film. The plot, characters, setting and film making techniques are quite different from any other film in recent memory. Ciro Guerra is relatively new to film making and it will be very interesting to see what kind of film he chooses to make next. Embrace of the Serpent will most certainly be difficult to follow.
All images are screenshots from Embrace of the Serpent
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