wed 21/10/2020

DVD/Blu-ray: Embrace of the Serpent | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: Embrace of the Serpent

DVD/Blu-ray: Embrace of the Serpent

Magical evocation of Amazonian wisdom impresses

Collision: Karamatake (Antonio Bolivar) and Dick Schultes (Brionne Davis)

The jungle, a region of Edenic fantasy and unspeakable terrors, has always fed the white man’s imagination as well as kindled his greed. Not surprisingly, this is rich ground for the movies – a place beyond time, the home of noble savages and an El Dorado to be stripped of its riches. In most jungle movies, including The Mission and The Emerald Forest, the indigenous population is romanced or demonised, or a mixture of both.

The jungle, a region of Edenic fantasy and unspeakable terrors, has always fed the white man’s imagination as well as kindled his greed. Not surprisingly, this is rich ground for the movies – a place beyond time, the home of noble savages and an El Dorado to be stripped of its riches. In most jungle movies, including The Mission and The Emerald Forest, the indigenous population is romanced or demonised, or a mixture of both. Werner Herzog, with Aguirre, God of Wrath and Fitzcarraldo, managed to temper the exoticism that tends to colour the outsider’s view of nature untouched and cultures so radically different from our own.

Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, is in a different class. The film transcends the white man’s addiction to linear chronology – without ever making it seem artificial or losing the audience – in a way that is true to the Amazonian indigenous people's own circular vision of time. The central figure in the double narrative – two resonating strands that span the 20th century and visits by two explorers – is the shaman Karamatake, the custodian of a great deal of ancient knowledge, a perspective on the whole of nature which draws no line between observer and observed, and the secrets of a hallucinogenic plant yakruna.

The natural sounds evoke the constant ferment of life in the rainforest

As the director explains in one of the revealing DVD extras, the film is shot in black and white to make the audience imagine the rich colours and textures of the Amazon rather than be distracted by the fierce literalism of 4K digital technology. Every frame in the film is beautiful, and the natural sounds evoke the constant ferment of life in the rainforest. 

Guerra also explains how the production made a point of involving the local indigenous population in the making of the film – in stark contrast with the stories of exploitation reported from the set of Herzog’s Amazon films. This inclusive approach shines through the film, providing a surprising intimacy and sense of authenticity. Most of all, something of the indigenous people’s sense of magic comes through in a film that is dreamlike from beginning to end.

The film doesn’t shrink from evoking the terror inflicted on the Amazonian peoples by the rubber barons and the missionaries. And yet, in the spirit of indigenous ethics that don’t share the white man’s reliance on seeing the world in terms of well-defined categories of "good" and "evil", the film suggests that the encounter with white explorers may not have a positive effect. In the context of the collision between the relentless march of colonising history and the ways of more settled peoples, the humble curiosity that drives much exploration offers one way of preserving some of the sophisticated wisdom that has enabled forest-dwellers to live in symbiosis with nature, for centuries, guided by respect for nature, rather than the need to subjugate. Threatened wisdom, that we risk losing at our peril.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Embrace of the Serpent

 

 

The film transcends the white man’s addiction to linear chronology

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters