Why is it that film purists and aficionados so readily embrace the obscure? Embrace of the Serpent is a title that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards and collected eight Columbian Oscars, including best picture, director, screenplay and cinematography that will appeal to three men and a dog. Okay, I recognise I am probably being unnecessarily harsh, but the point is this black and white lyrical work is about the metaphysical … and there really isn’t much of an audience out there for that.
Embrace of the Serpent tells the story of the first contact, encounter, approach, betrayal and, eventually, life-transcending friendship, between Karamakate (Nilbio Torres, then Antonio Bolivar), a powerful Amazonian shaman and two scientists over 40 years. Karamakate is the last survivor of his people who lives deep in the jungle, in voluntary isolation. Decades of solitude have turned him into a chullachaqui, an empty shell of a human, devoid of memories and emotion. His hollow life is shaken with the arrival of Evan (Brionne Davis), an American ethno-botanist in search of the Yakruna, a powerful sacred plant, capable of teaching people how to dream. Together Evan and Karamakate embark on a journey into the heart of the Amazon in which past, present and future are intertwined, and through which Karamakate will slowly begin to regain his lost memories.
The film was inspired by the journals of the first explorers of the Colombian Amazon, German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American botanist Richard Evans Schultes. Director Ciro Guerra was out to look beyond the fashion of seeing the Amazon as an unfathomable land, foolishly reduced to simple concepts – drugs, Indians, rivers and war. He asked the question, is there really nothing more out there? Is there not a culture and a history? Is there not a soul that transcends?
That is when he looked at the explorers who left everything behind and risked all to tell us about a world we couldn’t imagine. The film queries whether man can, through science and art, transcend brutality because like so many other natives, these people were driven out of their land by brutal and greedy tyrants.
Embrace of the Serpent, filmed during seven weeks in the jungles of Vaupés, is the first fiction feature to be shot in the Colombian Amazon in more than 30 years. It is also the first Colombian film to feature an indigenous protagonist and to be told from his perspective. But beyond Amazonia this is also a story about friendship, loyalty and betrayal.
The crew’s purpose was to approach the native communities and establish a relationship of mutual knowledge and respect, being transparent in every negotiation and always remembering that this is their land. The screenplay was mostly written by Ciro Guerra during the course of four years, with co-writer Jacques Toulemonde coming on board for the final drafts, helping to shape a non-western tale for audiences used to western storytelling. It’s worth noting that of the very few films that have been shot in the Amazon, almost all of them are told from the explorer’s point of view, and Amazon natives are often seen as primitive savages. Telling the story involved a multiracial, multicultural and multilingual set.
I was totally impressed by the commitment to telling the story and by the challenges involved in making the movie, but its poetic nature doesn’t make it readily accessible. It takes a lot of work (it requires concentration to follow) and a lot of time – too long as far as I am concerned and several times I switched off.
I was impressed by the acting, particularly of Jan Bijvoet, the Flemish actor who plays Theo, the first scientist to find his way through to this part of the world. He has managed to capture both vulnerability and strength. So too Nilbio Torres, who plays the younger Karamakate with fortitude and conviction. He is the only one who can rescue an ailing Theo and he does so most reluctantly. Torres’ amazing physical presence, his physique, has been sculpted by the hardships of the jungle and the hard work he’s done since he was little. This is his first experience with cinema, as the 30-year-old had only worked in agriculture before making this movie. Given the historic nature of the material, the decision to shoot in black and white was not only understandable, but highly appropriate.
So, all of the technicalities are right, but still as respectful as the film turns out to be and as honourable to the memories of a proud people, it doesn’t make it easy to get your head around and to enjoy. It also happens to be far too long. Rated M, Embrace of the Serpent scores a 5 out of 10.
Director: Ciro Guerra
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar
Release Date: 28 July, 2016
Rating: M – Mature themes and violence
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television