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Colombia 2016
Directed by
Ciro Guerra
125 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4.5 stars

Embrace Of The Serpent

Synopsis: In 1909, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) - an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his tribe – reluctantly agrees to guide dying German scientist Theo (Jan Bjivoet) on a journey up the Amazon in search of the yakruna plant which might be the only hope of curing the German’s disease. Thirty years later, an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) is persuaded to again take the journey upriver, this time with Evan (Brionne Davis) an American botanist who has read of the yakruna plant in Theo’s journal.

Basing his screenplay (co-written with Jacques Toulemonde Vidal) on the real diaries of Theordore Koch-Grunberg (Theo) and Richard Evans Schultes (Evan), Colombian director Ciro Guerra (The Wind Journeys, 2009) has crafted a film of poetic imagery and sometimes terrible beauty which bring home the devastation wrought by white exploitation of the natural resources of the Amazon jungle. Shot almost exclusively in vivid black and white (except for one powerful, hallucinatory sequence towards the end) the film transports us to a primitive world where superstitious beliefs and the spiritual, mystical power of shamans are closely connected with the earthly and celestial worlds.

It’s the collision between these simple and quite potent practices and the foreign forces of science, commerce and Christianity that provide some of the most interesting tensions in the film.  Indeed, Karamakate’s beliefs in how to behave as part of nature – his respect for plants and animals, his adherence to seasonal restrictions on certain foods  - and his suspicion of white men and their enslavement to their belongings make a lot of sense  when contrasted against the covetous and acquisitive practices of those he refers to as being no more than ‘just whites’. The fact that young Karamakate may be the last of a tribe extinguished by the ruthless European rubber traders is a awful idea made worse by his susceptibility to Theo’s claim that he knows where some survivors of the tribe are living. It’s this that lures the shaman to take the scientist on the journey that all but destroys him so that when we meet his older self he is, as he tells Evan, a chullachaqui -  a hollow spirit.

As the story shifts between 1909 and 1930 we are afforded the opportunity to see the corruption of primitive innocence in more than just the character of Karamakate. On the first journey, they stop at a Spanish Mission run by Father Gaspar (Luigi Sciamanna), the sole surviving priest who wields a whip in order to exert God’s and his own authority over the children left orphaned by the rubber traders. On the second journey, those children are now adults and inhabit the remains of the mission living according to a perverted mixture of Catholicism and tribal superstition led by Anizetto (Nicolás Cancino), a half-crazed messiah figure who proclaims himself to be the son of God. It’s a memorable performance that leaves us in little doubt that the Church has been just as destructive to the Amazonian culture as the rubber traders.

Embrace of the Serpent is beautifully photographed by cinematographer David Gallego and the strong imagery is underscored by Nascuy Linares’ lyrical soundtrack. Guerra’s film is a remarkable cinematic achievement with echoes of works like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), Roland Joffé’s The Mission (1986) and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006). Nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (and pipped at the post by another remarkable film, Son of Saul). Embrace of the Serpent is a film that, more than most, deserves to be seen on the big screen where its effect will not be soon forgotten.




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