This is the third film from Columbian film maker Ciro Guerra and it won the main prize in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes last year, but it really ought to have been invited to be screened there in the competition proper. And it only lost out on the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film to Hungary’s Son of Saul – which, quite correctly given the subject matter, was so harrowing it was almost unwatchable.
Embrace of the Serpent is a fictionalized marrying of the twin journeys into the heart of Amazonia that were embarked upon in the first half of the twentieth century. The first was made by the German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg in 1909, and the second in 1940 by the American Richard Evans Schultes, who is considered to be the father of ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between peoples and their plants.
We begin with the German who turns in desperation to a shaman, the haughty Karamakate, to relieve him of the delirium he is danger of slipping into.
But Karamakate has seen his land destroyed and his people decimated by the white man and his insatiable appetite for rubber, and for whatever else he can the rape the forest of. And he only very reluctantly agrees to be their guide.
Thirty years later, and the American Schultes is retracing the German’s steps in search of a wonder plant the latter is supposed to have discovered in the course of that first trip.
Shot ravishingly in black and white, the film has been described by many as hallucinogenic, but dream-like would be a more accurate description of the mood and atmosphere it evokes. Everything that happens is connected to what happened before and to what happens after, and there are reasons for the things that happen, and yet somehow events don’t unfold in the way that you would expect them to.
It’s as if classical, Newtonian causality had been suspended and been replaced by a higher logic that we’ve yet to have explained to us. You know it must all make sense, you’re just not quite sure how.
Of course, it’s not hard to see why people might resort to describing it as hallucinogenic. Very briefly and for barely a minute, the film bursts into colour in a badly misjudged attempt to imagine what the trip Schultes has gone on might look and feel like after imbibing of a local concoction – Schultes would later go on to write a famous book on LSD in 1979 with Albert Hofmann, the man who discovered it in 1938.
But it’s impossible to watch these experiments in colour and not think of what Kubrick did in much the same way for 22 glorious minutes in the final and genuinely psychedelic section of 2001: A Space Odyssey – which I reviewed earlier here.
That brief mis-step apart, Embrace of the Serpent is at times a majestic, at others an eerily haunting film that covers much the same territory as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but from the other end of the barrel of the gun. The conclusion is the same, but the journey getting there is a more isolated and therefore a more contemplative experience.
And the cacophony of chaos that that journey reveals is produced not by the machines of war, but by a jungle teaming with a life that’s being casually butchered by the white men manning the guns, and approaching from beyond the trees.
You can see the trailer for Embrace of the Serpent here.
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