The Columbian film, Birds of Passage.

Birds of Passage.

Ciro Guerro’s Embrace of the Serpent was the stand out film of 2015 (reviewed earlier here), so his follow up was much anticipated. On the face of it, Birds of Passage, which he directed with his production partner and former wife Cristina Gallego, couldn’t possibly be more different.

Over the course of two decades, we watch as the decease of narcotics comes to infect the whole of Columbian society. It begins innocuously enough, with the arrival in 1968 of a ragbag of hippies in search of a better class of high. But very quickly, every corner of the countryside has been laid low by the kind of blind greed that only ready cash can produce. And before long, the whole country has descended into a very modern hell.

Embrace of the Serpent.

Where Embrace of the Serpent was a meditation on colonialism in measured blacks and whites, the new film is a riot of colour and awash with noise. But that colour palette aside, the two films share remarkably similar concerns. It’s just that they are looking at the world through opposite ends of the telescope.

This time around, we are embedded in the Wayuu group, tribes of native Americans who live to the very north, on either side of the border between Columbia and Venezuela. And it is through the prism of their concerns and their traditions that we witness the havoc wreaked by the spread of the international drug trade. So once again, we are looking at ethnicity, ethnography and the discordant clash as age-old traditions come up against the progress offered by the modern world. 

It’s ravishing to look at, and sumptuous to behold, sonically speaking. And I desperately wanted it to lift off and take flight. But it doesn’t.

The Wayuu people.

The film’s problems can be traced to its casting. Not the cast, who all do their best, but to the ethos behind the casting. For the film makers insisted on casting actual Wayuu tribespeople in a third of the roles, and deliberately avoided any “named” actors throughout – the only name is Natalia Reyes, soon to star in the latest Terminator reboot. Yes, that’s what the world needs, a n other instalment from yet another CGI, green screen Hollywood franchise. 

She plays the wife of the protagonist, Rapayet. He himself is played by the Cuban baseball star Jose Acosta. So, unsurprisingly, with so many inexperienced performers, there is a decided dearth of passion to the telling of the tale. And this is further exacerbated by the script. Reyes, for instance, who is so strikingly central to the film’s opening half an hour, tamely disappears from view for much of the rest of the film. And without that core relationship to root for, and given the bloodless, one-dimentional nature of so many of the other performances, it’s impossible to care very much about what happens to the various characters as they make their way inevitably down.

(L-R) – José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in Birds of Passage

In short, the film is weighed down by its lofty ambitions and its sense of moral rectitude. It’s too ethnographically concerned to allow the drama catch fire, but not sufficiently to qualify as a documentary. It looks and sounds amazing, and it’s definitely not a bad film. It’s just nowhere near as good as it might have been.

You can see the trailer to Birds of Passage here

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A trip down the Amazon with “Embrace of the Serpent”.

Embrace of the Serpent.

Embrace of the Serpent.

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 was so harrowing (correctly so given its subject) that 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.

the-new-film-embrace-of-the-serpent-conjures-a-forgotten-indigenous-vision-of-the-amazon-1452186262-crop_mobileBut 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.

2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001: A Space Odyssey.

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.

The fourth and final section of 2001 takes flight.

The fourth and final section of 2001 takes flight.

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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