Embrace of the Serpent (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): Two parallel journeys into Amazonian jungle

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Sometimes I come across movies which both baffle and fascinate me, and Columbian film “Embrace of the Serpent”, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar early in last year, is one of such cases. Although I watched it twice, I am not sure about whether I understand everything in the movie, and now I wonder whether I should learn more of its background knowledge, but I do not think I will forget easily what I observed from the film with a certain degree of fascination and enchantment.

Loosely based on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Shultes, the movie alternates between two fictional main storylines. In 1909, a German ethnologist named Theo von Martius (Jan Bijvoet) happens to contract some serious tropical disease during his expedition in Columbian Amazon area, and Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), Theo’s local expedition partner who was freed from a rubber plantation by Theo, takes Theo to a shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres). As a man who has been angry and bitter about how his people and their way of life was eradicated by the colonization process initiated by Europeans, Karamakate shows hostility toward Theo as well as Manduca at first, but he eventually joins them, and that is the beginning of their search for a rare plant which can cure Theo’s illness and save his life.

The other part of the movie is set in around 30 years later, and the first scene of this part shows Old Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) drawing a vast chalky mural on the rock. While he is occupied with his mural, an American botanist named Evan (Brionne Davis) approaches to him, and Evan tells Old Karamakate that he is looking for that rare plant Theo and Karamakate searched for. Although it seems he does not remember many things in the past now, Old Karamakate comes to accompany Evans in the end, and they start to follow a route which was once trodden by Theo and his two accompanying figures.

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As going back and forth between these two parallel storylines, the movie flows from one interesting scene from another. At one point, Theo and his two accompanists drop by a small tribal community, and the mood becomes jolly and cordial as they get along well with its chief and community members, but then there comes an uncomfortable moment in the next morning when Theo tries to retrieve a compass taken from him. He simply does not want to disrupt these people’s way of life with a modern object, but, as Karamakate sharply points out, he does not look much different from other white men as being harsh and unkind to the people who openly welcomed him.

As the journey continues along the river, the movie often shows us several gloomy sights reflecting the ongoing exploitation involved with rubber business, and the most harrowing scene in the film comes from when Theo and his accompanists come upon a small rubber plantation. Apparently upset due to his painful past reflected by the scars on his back, Manduca kicks off several buckets of rubber, but then there comes a wretched worker devastated by Manduca’s action, and he even pleads Manduca to kill him for saving him from more misery to come.

In case of a shabby mission which was originally a rubber plantation, a bunch of indigene orphans are protected by an old priest, but, not so surprisingly, this place turns out to have its own darkness, and it turns into something far worse when Evan and Old Karamakate happens to pass by the place later. Now it is occupied by a bunch of cultists led by an apparently unhinged guy who rules the place as their messiah, and we soon get a loony ceremony scene which looks more nightmarish as the ceremony is driven into more madness.

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Now some of you may be reminded of similar films such as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) or “Apocalypse Now” (1979), but “Embrace of the Serpent” has its own distinctive aspects. The director Ciro Guerra, who wrote the screenplay with Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, and his cinematographer David Gallego shot their film in 35mm black and white film, and the movie is imbued with the qualities of lucid dreams as constantly impressing us with visually striking shots to be appreciated. While the plot is a little too opaque and languid at times, the movie keeps engaging us via its visual prowess, and we become more immersed in its alien but undeniably mesmerizing world and then somehow come to accept the mythic aspect of its story. Not long after the meaning of the title of the movie is explained through Old Karamakate later in the story, there comes a hallucinogenic moment which somehow took me back to that climax sequence of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), and I am still musing on the subsequent scene which ends with an ambivalent tone.

Most of performers in the film are non-professional performers, and they certainly bring considerable authenticity to their roles with their various indigene languages, which may be faded into the past within decades because of the continuing wave of modernization. While they never appear together on the screen, Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar are effortlessly linked to each other in their natural performance, and Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis are competent as the counterpoint figures in the movie, and Yauenkü Migue is also fine as another substantial character in the story.

Since it won the Art Cinema Award in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, “Embrace of the Serpent” has received heaps of acclaim. I must say that I am not as enthusiastic about it as many other critics, but I admire its style and mood even though I felt impatient from time to time, and I am willing to recommend it to you if you are looking for something unique and different.

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