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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!