El abrazo de la serpiente
Ciro Guerra, 2015, Columbia-Venezela-Argentina
Ciro Guella’s film is a mesmerising journey into a long dead world of an Amazon in the midst of colonialism, based upon diaries by scientists Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes. Naturally ‘Heart of Darkness’ and the films of Werner Herzog will come to mind , but there is a formal elegance, uncanniness and style here that has little to do with Herzog’s more neo-realist aesthetic. Gorgeous and haunting vistas of black and white cinematography by David Gallego segue into one another, occasionally crossing timeframes to tell the tale.
An ailing explorer (Jan Bijvoet) goes into the Amazon jungle and enlists the help of a native, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Boliar) to find a legendary flower, supposedly capable of curing disease. Years later, another explorer with the same objective also enlists the older Karamakate’s assistance, sparking memories even though Karamakate has forgotten some of the rituals he used to know.
It’s a stark but soulful excursion into a world where white men bring madness and death with little to counter that this is what they symbolise. The second visit to the Spanish Mission where a mad self-appointed messiah has taken over is the material of a horror film, for example, but ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is only interested in this as part of the texture. In this world, the native fables where celestial animal spirits come to Earth (and where the title comes from) are a poetic tonic to the unforgiving nature of the white man’s religion. Karamakate is aware he is of a dying consciousness, one of the last of his kind and in the end it is all he can do to accept this with a few acts of defiance that will deprive the colonists of the jewels of his people.
Karamakate proves a fascinating character that easily quashes apparent “noble savage” archetypes, a character resistant to typical Western interpretations, always critical of other Amazonians that have befriended the white man. The importance of this film giving a rare voice to the Amazonian tribes-people has been officially recognised as it
bears tragic witness to colonial atrocities that have ravaged natural resources, devastated indigenous populations, and broken a link between ancient wisdom and Western man's exploitive madness. Accordingly, the Governor of the Guainía Department, one of the locations used for the film, decorated Ciro Guerra with the Order of the Inrida Flower for “exalting the respect and value of the indigenous populations, likewise giving the Department recognition for tourism and culture.”
A haunting and haunted world is evoked and alienation is a near tangible thing, not only in Karamakate’s isolation from the world as the last survivor of his tribe, but also in the Spanish mission’s decent into madness. Karamakate does not appear to have let loneliness and isolation bring on such madness: he is clear of thinking and opinion and radiates a natural pride. He goes on the white men’s excursions for his own reasons and makes little concession to them.
Time is fluid as the narrative slides from past to present, via as much by the river as by memory. By putting the past foremost the film puts it on an equal level with its present rather than relegating it to “flashback”. Although the editing does not fracture time and find associations and symbolisms by juxtapositions in the style of Nicolas Roeg – ‘Walkabout’, say – Guerra exhibits a similar awareness of the bond between editing and time. By the time it seems to go a little ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (it’s only colour sequence), it has long been evident that ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is also about film as a transcendent, hallucinogenic experience. It’s a film that evokes memories, dreams, the fluidity of time and a lost culture and refreshingly seems scornful of traditional white narrative norms.
Beautiful, strange, tapping into the potential for film to give voice to everyone, even those long gone. An exceptional achievement.