Down the hypnotic river of dreams

July 29, 2016


Embrace of the Serpent (M)

Rating: 4 / 5 


Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s evocative new black-and-white film Embrace of the Serpent draws immediate comparisons with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Jim Jamusch’s Dead Man.

But Embrace of the Serpent also offers something wholly its own. While it’s based on the Amazon diaries of two actual explorers, German ethnobotanist Theo Koch-Grünberg and American botanist Richard ‘Evan’ Evans Schultes, Guerra’s sympathies clearly lie with the central indigenous character Karamakate (played as a young man by Nilbio Torres and as an older man by Antonio Bolivar Salvador).

That’s not to say that he disregards the hardships undergone by explorers such as Koch-Grünberg (played by Jan Bijvoet) and Schultes (Brionne Davis), especially the former who made a valuable contribution towards the study of the indigenous peoples during the early 1990s, and whose rugged and dangerous trek through the Amazon left him a changed man. 

But the film belongs to Karamakate, who when we first meet him is still a powerful presence in the Amazon, despite having lost all of his tribe. 

When Theo becomes sick with a life-threatening illness, his loyal travelling companion, a former rubber plantation slave and now free man, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), seeks out Karamakate who alone knows where to find the yakruna, a powerful sacred healing plant. At first Karamakate wants nothing to do with them, but he is slowly beguiled by Theo’s promise that he will take Karamakate to the place upriver where some of his people have relocated to. 

Decades later, Karamakate now sees himself as a chullachaqui, an empty shell of a human, devoid of memories and dreams. Karamakate’s solitude is disturbed by the arrival of Evan Schultes, who confides in the old man that he, too, is like a dead man walking and feels nothing. 

Together the two journey into the heart of the Amazon where time, space and identity become strangely elastic, and where both men come to an understanding of the world and their place in it.

This is a film in which the dominant European viewpoint is constantly being challenged. In one scene, when Kara­makate watches the obviously unwell Theo labouring under his luggage, he berates him and asks him why he needs to carry so many things with him. The explorer tells him that in his suitcases is his work and everything that ties him to his homeland and his wife. 

Karamakate announces to the bemused Theo that therein lies the eternal problem with white people—they value what they own more than the Earth itself.  

That’s what makes this film one of the strongest comments on colonisation you’re likely to see on screen. It’s the rubber trade that brought Europeans in droves to the Amazon, and along the river we see consequences of that commerce in the abandoned missions, the countless orphans, and in the physical and psychological scars of a once-proud people.  

And yet it’s anything but didactic. Guerra and co-writer Jacques Toulemonde’s screenplay (which took more than four years to write) moves effortlessly between genres—from fantasy to fact, politics to travelogue, and their persistence pays off in Karamakate who, we can only hope, will somehow make his way back to his precious memories. 

Highlight: the haunting score by Nascuy Linares
Red Flag: some nudity and hallucinatory scenes 


Tags: Salvation Army Australia

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