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Epic Exploits: Ciro Guerra’s Embrace Of The Serpent (2015) – Blu-ray review

September 6, 2016 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

A stunning, hypnotic epic whose visual splendour doesn’t overpower its nimble, complex dialogue between exploration and exploitation.

1 Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace Of The Serpent
(Ciro Guerra, 2015)

Tales of men going mad in colonial times are rife – and ideal for cinema, as classics from Aguirre, Wrath Of God to Apocalypse Now have proved. Even so, these films are invariably told from the viewpoint of the ‘whites’ who are intruding. What separates Embrace Of The Serpent is its keen understanding of the complex view from the natives’ side.

It’s easy to scoff. Director Ciro Guerra is a thirtysomething Colombian who made this film in honour of the all the songs we’ll never hear from Amazonian tribes wiped out by early 20th century rubber barons. His story revolves around the shamanistic appeal of the region’s hallucinatory plants, while his evocative monochrome cinematography resembles the controversial, ethnographic work of Sebastiao Salgado. Is this, then, merely a hipper, more sensitive version of the same cultural tourism that other directors fall into?

No – partly because Guerra is all too aware of the pitfalls, and partly because on this evidence he’s a master filmmaker. The film casts a spell without ever coming across as condescending. The landscapes are awe-inspiring, but in the best way: a dangerous ordeal to be navigated with care, with a shimmering, ungraspable reality. The native characters have a real voice: pride is balanced with sardonic wit, devotion to ancient rituals countered with a savvy understanding of the encroaching modern world. Neither victim nor savage, the hero Karamakate (the last survivor of his tribe and a reluctant companion to white explorers) must decide which elements of the dual culture are worth retaining – as he remarks of other, less fortunate, people, they’ve chosen the worst of both worlds.

That bi-focal awareness is mirrored by the film’s clever structure, hopping between Karamakate’s youth and old age (played, brilliantly, by Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar) via two neatly counterpointed journeys with explorers Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and Evan (Brionne Davis). Guerra has been inspired by the diaries of two real-life explorers, but by telling these stories through Karamakate’s perspective, the film makes them all the more meaningful – noble follies that are wrong-headed in so many ways, yet still blessed with an admirable scientific curiosity. At one point, Theo is aghast to lose his compass, but his complaints that the locals will lose their traditions is met with a polite, but mocking, rebuttal. (In many ways, this is something of a time travel movie, with the later expedition dealing with the fall-out of the previous journey, and so acting as a corollary for the whole process of European entry into the Amazon basin.)

Where it matters, this is a film about exploration, not exploitation, shot with a surreal calm. The influence of Herzog and Coppola is apparent in the episodic trips to the shore, taking in sadistic missionaries or a crazed, Kurtz-like figure convinced he is Jesus. But the film’s most piercing, eloquent moments come in the dialogues – visual, as much as verbal – between Karamakate and his travelling companions, a crucible of history, culture, religion and humanity.

Embrace Of The Serpent is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 12th September.

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