A visually mesmerizing exploration of man, nature and the destructive powers of colonialism, Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) marks an impressively realized third feature from Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra, who last came to Cannes in 2009 with his critically lauded drama, The Wind Journeys. Featuring knockout black-and-white cinematography and an array of breathtaking locations, this ethnographic journey into the heart of the Amazon – with a whopping total of nine different languages spoken on screen – should see additional festival play and a few niche art house pickups after its premiere at the Directors’ Fortnight.
Reminiscent of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu in its recreation of colonial events through a richly nostalgic modern prism, the story (written by Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde) was inspired by the journals of two explorers who traveled through the Colombian Amazon during the last century: the German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and the American Richard Evans Schultes, here transformed into the characters Theodor (Jan Bijvoet from Borgman) and Evan (Brionne Davis).
Cutting between 1909 and the 1940s, the parallel narratives chart each man’s voyage down a similar stretch of river as they search for a rare flower, the yakruna, with alleged healing powers. On both journeys they are guided by the same forlorn native shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres in ’09, Antonio Bolivar in the ‘40s) – the surviving member of a tribe that was wiped out by years of brutal foreign invasions.
Filled with regret over the loss of his people and unable to fully trust the men he agrees to accompany downriver, Karamakate ultimately proves an invaluable resource to the explorers, both of whom are curious about his culture and willing to go along for the ride without knowing where they’re headed. Theodor, who’s suffering from a fatal illness, is especially dependent on the witch doctor’s powers, taking hits of an herbal medicine (that could be some form of cocaine) in order to stay alive.
Following the dueling voyages as they head further into the heart of Amazonian darkness, Guerra and talented DP David Gallego use pristine widescreen imagery to underline the beauty of a place that’s slowly and sadly headed toward oblivion. For every magnificent stretch of forest and river, there are telling signs of destruction, such as a rubber plantation where a mutilated worker begs to be put out of his misery, or a Catholic mission that over the years becomes a decadent fiefdom ruled by a religious quack – an early version of the Kurtz compound in Apocalypse Now.
Along with the memorable set-pieces, atmospheric sound design by Carlos Garcia (Nymphomaniac) makes the jungle truly come alive, and as the two travelers reach their respective destinations they gradually merge into their lush surroundings. Only the music of Haydn’s The Creation – played on a portable phonograph in what seems like a nod to Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo – is there to remind us of lasting European influences, although even Karamakate can appreciate its hold over Evan’s psyche.
If the film runs a tad too long, especially in its second half, Embrace of the Serpent is still an absorbing account of indigenous tribes facing up to colonial incursions, revealing how Westerners are in many ways far behind the native peoples they conquer. (A subject explored in David Grann’s book The Lost City of Z, to be adapted by director James Gray.) History may unfortunately be on the side of the victors, but such progress is not always worth its weight in gold.
Production company: Ciudad Lunar Producciones
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar, Yauenku Miguee, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis
Director: Ciro Guerra
Screenwriters: Ciro Guerra, Jacques Toulemonde
Producer: Cristina Gallego
Executive producers: Cristina Gallego, Raul Bravo, Marcelo Cespedes, Horacio Mentasti
Director of photography: David Gallego
Production designer: Angelica Perea
Editors: Etienne Boussac, Cristina Gallego
Composer: Nascuy Linares
Casting director: Gustavo Muyano
International sales: Films Boutique
No rating, 123 minutes