Embrace of the Serpent

August 4, 2016
Nilbio Torres in 'Embrace the Serpent' (2015)
Nilbio Torres in 'Embrace the Serpent' (2015)

There can’t be many films in which the lead actor has never actually seen a movie before, let alone starred in one. This unique achievement belongs to Nilbio Torres, an Amazonian Indian who plays a lead role in Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, the first Columbian film to have been nominated for an Academy Award. It may have lost out to László Nemes’s harrowing Son of Saul, but Guerra has picked up an impressive haul of prizes on the festival circuit, including the Art Cinema Award at Cannes.

What makes this feature unique is that it tries to tell the story of the conquest and degradation of the Amazonian indians from an indigenous perspective. It’s not a political tract, but an elegiac, almost mystical narrative.

The jungle is a favourite setting for B-movies, usually with a cannibal motif. For more ambitious projects Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness seems to have laid out the blueprint: a westerner with a Messiah complex ventures deep into the jungle, looking to assuage the demons in his own troubled psyche.

One thinks of the protagonists in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and inevitably, Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. The difference is that Guerra’s film doesn’t focus on the white outsiders, but on those who live in the jungle, and perhaps the jungle itself.

Like the Eskimos with their 50 words for snow, the Amazonians reputedly have 50 words for “green”. This is why Guerra chose to shoot in black-and-white, using film rather than digital. He establishes his distance from earlier jungle sagas and lends the story a kind of dream-like beauty – not without a huge debt to the efforts of cinematographer David Gallego.

Embrace of the Serpent features two western explorers, Theodor Koch-Grünberg, who ventured down the Amazon in 1909; and Richard Evans-Schultes, who took the same path in 1940. Both men are historical figures but Guerra has fictionalised them and their journeys. Koch-Grünberg appears to have been one of those intrepid Germans who followed Alexander von Humboldt to the wildest, most remote parts of the world in the name of science. Evans-Schultes was a biologist who did ground-breaking work on hallucinogenics.

In this story they become Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and Evan (Brionne Davis), who both travel by canoe down the Amazon with the shaman, Karamakate, one following in the footsteps of the other. The younger Karamakate is played by Nilbio Torres, the older version by Antonio Bolivar. The aim of both journeys is to find yakruna, a sacred (fictional) plant known for its healing powers. Theo needs the plant because he is dying of a tropical disease and believes it is his only hope. Evan is interested in the plant’s ability to make us dream.

Karamakate, whose name means “the one who tries”, is the key to these quests. The younger man is hostile to the white explorer, having seen his tribe destroyed by the rapacious rubber barons, but he agrees to help when he learns that Theo knows a place where his people still survive.

By the time Evan comes along, Karamakate is old, bald, and very much in decline. He says he no longer remembers the meaning of the hieroglyphs he has inscribed on a rock by the river, and has lost the ability to communicate with the jungle. If he agrees to help Evan find the plant it is for him a quest in search of his past and his memories.

The second journey mirrors the first, even calling in at a mission where a lone Jesuit used to beat orphaned children, forbidding them to use their own language. Thirty years later the mission has become even more of a horror, with the grown-up orphans under the sway of a deranged white man who sees himself as Jesus Christ.

These are the ghostly traces of the colonial invasion that has left Karamakate as the last of his people. Yet the old beliefs run deep, and we gradually realise that in the guide’s mind Evan shares the same spirit as Theo. As for himself, he complains that he is nothing but a chullachacqui – a hollow man or empty shell.

The title of the movie refers to a Creation myth whereby celestial beings came to earth riding a giant snake. If one drinks a narcotic made from a certain plant the serpent descends again and takes one to an unseen realm. This is the experience that Evan seeks in his pursuit of yakruna. One sees the affinities between the mythic serpent and the river that winds its way through the jungle.

At one point Evan extracts an old gramophone from his luggage and plays a scratchy record of Haydn’s The Creation, which Karamakate absorbs with pleasure. It’s a meeting point between two worldviews, two cosmologies. The same may be said for a film that retains enough of a linear narrative for us to follow the story while alerting us that our point-of-view is only a narrow, provisional one. There are places, we realise, where our ideas of civilisation make no sense at all.

Embrace of the Serpent
Directed by Ciro Guerra
Written by Ciro Guerra & Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
Starring Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne David, Yauenkü Migue
Columbia/Venezuela/Argentina, rated M, 124 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 6th August, 2016.

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