2015; adapted and directed by Ciro Guerra; 125 mins
When I decided that I was going to see a shitload of movies at the film festival, I decided I wanted to see something completely off the beaten track. Something by someone I’d never heard of or from a country I’d never seen a movie from. I got both of those with Embrace of the Serpent. A Colombian/Venezuelan co-production written and directed by Ciro Guerra (whose previous directorial credits include La sombre del caminante and The Wind Journeys which I have not seen), this is a truly different work into the bargain. It has surface similarities to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God: a trip down the Amazon into a heart of darkness. Whereas however, Herzog’s film is about conquistadors literally going mad on a power trip, this is based on two true stories about two different scientists who both meet lone tribesman, Karamakate, thirty years apart from one another. Both have the same goal to travel down the Amazon in search of a rare healing plant called Yakruna. The first story takes place in 1909, based on the journals of German Theodor Koch-Grunberg, who promises to help Karamakate locate the last of his tribe if he will help the feverish European find the Yakruna which will cure him. This promise of reconciliation, sways Karamakate who has nothing but undisguised hatred for the white man. In the 1940 section, American botanist Richard Evans Schultes persuades the older Karamakate to help him find the very last Yakruna as Karamakate is the only person left who can locate it but his memory is failing him so time is running out. These separate narratives both lead to a trip down river and through the primary and secondary after-effects of the Europeans’ devastation of the indigenous tribes. From the rubber plantations and the destruction of the Indians through slave labour to the psychological ruination of their children via the strictures of Christianity and it’s long term consequences, the two journeys show us much of our ancestors’ Colonialist sins. There is even a hint towards the end of a new, commercial evil which is soon to be visited upon the rainforest and whosoever dwells within it. Through this, the figure of Karamakate remains constant but more than a cypher or a symbol for collective, posthumous pity; he is a fascinating person full of anger and resentment in his younger years and in his dotage, wisdom and world-weariness. The effect of this is to properly humanise an Amazonian person in a way that perhaps has not been done before. Before we have seen them as martyrs or victims or just cannibal savages. Karamakate is a fully rounded character who is forthright, unabashed in his beliefs, strong and capable of great wisdom but also can be petty, arrogant and bloody-minded to a fault. This is one of the many things that make the film stand out from the pack. The decision to shoot in black and white is a bold one aswell, rejecting the potential for rich jungle colours in favour of a more harsh palette to complement this nightmarish tale. Nightmarish it is too, particularly two sequences – one involving a mutilated slave of the rubber barons and one properly terrifying set piece with Karamakate and Evans getting caught by a post-Christian cult to cure the child wife of their ‘Messiah’ on pain of hideous execution. That said, there are moments of great delicacy including two mirroring shots of Karamakate amidst many swirling butterflies on the edge of the river. The film seems to have it’s black and white in order to strip any false romanticism or nostalgia away in favour of harsh reality but still finds room for the natural beauty of the area. It really is a film that stands tall on it’s own merits even when it doesn’t need to in a film world that really is still only in the online discussion part of what this film has done with it’s narrative: that is – to have a film about indigenous peoples with two white European main characters and to tell it from the perspective of the non-white protagonist. However, to sell on this alone would be to sell it as an exercise in box ticking and this is really a great story well told.