Embrace of the Serpent

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (El Abrazo de la Serpiente). Starring: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, and Luigi Sciamanna. Directed by Ciro Guerra. Rated M (Mature themes and violence). 124 min.

Set in the early 1900s, this subtitled, multinational film from Argentina, Columbia and Venezuela is a drama that tells two main stories, separated by over 30 years. One of the last survivors of an Amazon tribe travels with two scientists in search of a rare, sacred plant that grows on rubber trees and has hallucinogenic, healing properties. The film is based loosely on writings by the scientists, decades apart. The film won the Art Cinema Award at the 2015 Cannes film Festival, and has been given awards for direction, editing, cinematography, and music at other international film festivals.

The film's title draws its metaphorical meaning through the depiction of the Amazonian ecosystem as a serpent in the act of an embrace, the snake being a well-known image in South American mythology that expresses symbolically "finding purpose and direction in ways of knowing".The film was shot on the border of Colombia and Brazil, and many of its images have biblical overtones.

The film focuses on the relationship between an Amazonian warrior-shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres plays the young tribesman, and Antonio Bolivar plays the same person when older) and two scientists - Theodor (Jan Bijvoet) and Evan (Brionne Davis), who journeyed separately with Karamakate to find the healing plant. The structure of the film employs multiple narratives, working in parallel. The narratives intertwine, separate, and at one time merge. Each of the two main narratives shows Karamakate travelling down a similar stretch of river with Theodor, or Evan.

Theodor has a potentially fatal tropical disease, and wants the plant to cure him, and Evan follows in Theodore footsteps, saying he has "come to learn". Evan knows the plant has scientific significance, but he also needs it "to help him dream". Two scientists with good intentions have no idea about the impact of what they are doing, and in thriller format the film shows indigenous people, reacting benignly and violently to colonial incursions into their natural way of life.

This is a movie that adventurously takes the viewer deep into the heart of the Amazonian jungle. Extraordinary black and white images, that make exceptional use of contrast photography, are visually stunning. Reflections of foliage and humans appear on the surface of the snaking river; a predatory jaguar stalks a serpent who has given birth; and craggy hills and majestic mountains overlook dense jungle. For almost every beautiful image, there are contrasting images that highlight injustice, poverty, and destruction. One is of a maimed Indigenous worker on a rubber plantation, who is willing to die with the knowledge that he is no longer considered useful. Another is of a deranged Priest (Luigi Sciamanna), who subdues his flock by punitively trying to "save the souls" of orphaned children in his care - creating a legacy of religious and sadistic fanaticism.

The cinematography in the movie as a whole is outstanding, and the incursions into indigenous culture are tragic and uplifting. The film illustrates tragically what happens when cultures clash - so-called civilisation brings slaughter, torture, squalor, and rape of the land. But the movie uplifts as well. We see the life-affirming consequences of what can occur when culturally diverse people finally come to understand each other. After three decades, Karamakate realises that he has engendered respect for his traditional ways, and the two scientists have grown in knowledge. The film is a journey into darkness of three persons, where each discovers what he didn't know before.

This is a beautiful and profoundly moving film that lingers in the mind and heart, well after the movie has finished. It hypnotically mixes harsh reality with dream-like fantasy. It poetically represents European colonialism of the Amazon at its most brutal, and it shows human acceptance of shared wisdom. The film is quality art-house cinema at its finest.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Palace Films

Released July 28, 2016

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