Embrace of the Serpent Review

Posted: December 31, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

embrace-of-the-serpent-posterWritten by Daniel Simpson

One of the more frustrating aspects of being a film buff not living in a major urban center is reading about new releases that I know don’t have a prayer of opening where I live. Limited releases for titles like La La Land are bad enough, but at least I know those movies will eventually open in my city. There are however a fair portion of films which never get a chance at the multiplexes where I live, which is doubly frustrating when the film in question receives a ton of high praise. Such was the case earlier this year when the Colombian drama Embrace of the Serpent finally got a North American release and received with open arms, all while I had to want on the sidelines like a chump. I’ve been patiently waiting for a chance to finally catch up with film and my patience has finally been rewarded.

It very quickly becomes apparent that the film is split between two different stories and time periods connected by an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate. In 1909, Karamakate (played in this section by Nilbio Torres) is approached by Theo von Maritus (Jan Bijvoet), a German scientist suffering from ailments seeking a rare sacred plant to heal him. Karamakate is distrustful of whites and initially reacts with anger, but does eventually relent and serves as a guide for Theo. Thirty years later, an elderly Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar) is once again approached by a white scientist seeking that same plant. This scientist is named Evan (Brionne Davis) and claims he wishes to finish Theo’s work. Though Karamakate largely feels defeated and has forgotten much of his own culture, but he nonetheless agrees to serve as a guide. Throughout both journeys, the consequences of colonial action in the Amazon are encountered and the motivations of each scientist is unravelled.

Embrace of the Serpent is an exploration of colonialism and while I’m sure the film’s outlook is overall a negative one, director Ciro Guerra never plays his hand too obviously. The film presents very few acts of overt colonial violence and is really more interested in the aftermath. Furthermore, the main journeys undertaken are largely passive ones wherein Karamakate and company encounter a group of people and interact with them for a bit before departing. Much of these interactions involve groups who have been touched by colonialism in some way or another. It’s clear early on that the rubber barrens have caused tremendous devastation, both the environment as well as to several tribes existing within the Amazon. There is a veil of death that pervades through much of Embrace of the Serpent and it’s clear that many of the native characters have suffered tremendous loss. The presence of missionaries within the Amazon have also had some tremendous consequences. One of the film’s most interesting locations, which appears in both time periods, is a Catholic Mission where the religious teachings have evolved into something very dangerous.

The film also avoids turning either of its white scientist into paragons of virtue that are different from those, “other” white colonizers. While their intentions might be nobler than the rubber barons bleeding the Amazon dry, Guerra is still aware of the harm Theo and Evan are causing and their own prejudicial views they might hold. Of course the protagonist and the real lynchpin of the film is Karamakate and the differences in his personality based on age say a lot in and of themselves. For example, the younger Karamakate barks with anger and hostility towards Theo, frequently challenging his ideas and at times expressing downright hatred. However the older Karamakate is more resigned to silence. He clearly has strong thoughts about all that is going on in his country, but he’s also withered and worn down. His anger has largely been replaced by sorrow. It’s a clear indication of how colonialism has impacted Karmakate. Despite these critical observations, Embrace of the Serpent never takes on a judgemental tone. A lot of this is rooted in the cinematography, which is more detached and ethereal than one might expect. The visuals are in many ways just as interested in the natural world as it is the people who inhabit it. Guerra also made the brilliant decision to shoot the movie in black and white which goes a long way in deglamourizing the natural beauty of the Amazon. The compositions are also often very striking and direct. In turn, the feel of the film is a lot more melancholic than romantic.

The film also has a strong spiritual element which comes to a head in a big way during the film’s ending. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this spiritual aspect, and the film’s ending in particular is a bit of an enigma (though I have my own theory regarding the final shot). Still, these elements are compelling and there is also a fair degree of debate to be had in this regard. It’s clear for example that Karmakate genuinely believes that the drug they are seeking allows for communication with a higher power, but the white characters are a lot more skeptical and the film doesn’t really take a side. To some extent, these elements might work as a Rorschach test for viewers who bring their own spiritual/secular baggage to the work and that in itself might be the point. Just as the white colonialists came in with their own assumptions and opinions regarding Amazonian culture, so too do the viewers. Then again, it’s possible that perspective represents a certain arrogance on my part, assuming the film is deliberately designed for a white western viewer such as myself. Either way, these elements do introduce some interesting food for thought and I look forward to what future viewings might yield in this regard.

All told, Embrace of the Serpent lives up to the hype and is one of the most enriching movie experiences I’ve had all year. Purely on a technical level, the film is exquisitely shot and transitions between storylines very elegantly. On a deeper level, the film provides fascinating insights into the colonialism of the Amazon and speaks to more broad truths about colonial tendencies in the 20th century. It’s also a film that provides some mystery which makes the prospect of revisits all the more compelling. If the film is lacking anything, it’s that some of the characters could have used maybe a little more development but that doesn’t diminish the many elements which make Embrace of the Serpent special. This is a very thoughtful film and it also presents its ideas in a fairly accessible manner.

A

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