Thursday, 22 December 2016

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2016) - review

A deeply entrancing meditation on the lives and myths inhabiting the Colombian Amazon, Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent fictionalises reality in order to entertain a bigger, and more important truth. Blending the stories of real life ethnobotanists Theodor Koch-Grundberg and Richard Evans Schultes (Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis), the story is not told from their perspectives, but instead of the isolated shaman Karamakate, who we see in both his brash younger self (Nilbio Torres) and an older, more disillusioned self (Antonio BolĂ­var Salvador).

Distrusting of white people, because of the trauma the rubber barons caused to his tribe, Karamakate is unwilling to help the rapidly deteriating Theo find the rare yakruna plant, which Theo hopes will cure his illness, in the 1909 section of the film, but travels along with him anyway, and seems to mock Theo for his obsession with "things". In 1940, an older Karamakate is confronted by Evan, who is recreating Theo's steps for the yakruna, but is also looking for more rubber trees for the US.

Mixing themes of colonialist anthropology and the tribes native beliefs, the characters are at once fighting each other, yet trying to learn from one another. The two botanists suffer from lacking an innate understanding of what the tribes people believe in, especially their belief in the anaconda which descended from the Milky Way to create life, but are to be praised for recording the history of the Amazonian tribes. Karamakate is angry at the betrayal of the white men in general, but confides that he, in older life, is a chullachaqui, and can barely remember his own tribes ways.

Shot in stunning black and white, relating back to the ethnographic tomes written by the likes of Koch-Grundberg and Schultes, you are not here to marvel at the exotic beauty of the jungle, but instead heed the words of a troubled man, angered and miserable by the loss of his tribes knowledge. The pace reels you in slowly, yet you are immediately captivated, especially by the central performances (Torres is particularly engaging). Guerra's directing is equally extraordinary, being able to mix the two timelines and letting them meld together, and the metaphysical aspects, which would be clunky and preachy under a lesser director, felt genuine and revelatory.



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