While Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) spirals into insanity in the most inhospitable of places, Guerra’s work brings us deep into the Amazonian and asks of us to connect with the lost souls of its perished tribal inhabitants.
Dir. Ciro Guerra
2015 | Colombia | Drama/Adventure | 125 mins | 2.35:1 | Various languages
NC16 (passed clean) for some nudity
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis
Plot: The story of the relationship between Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his people, and two scientists who work together over the course of 40 years to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant.
Awards: Won C.I.C.A.E. Award (Cannes). Nom. for 1 Oscar – Best Foreign Language Film
International Sales: Films Boutique
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore International Festival of Arts O.P.E.N. – first published 30 July 2016)
It’s hard for any film to be singular nowadays, but Embrace of the Serpent comes very close to being one. The Colombian film won the Director’s Fortnight sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, but I really think it deserved to have competed in a far more illustrious category.
Its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Feature will help to widen its exposure to an international audience, which is great because this is a superb film, made with a raw, ethnographic passion, in a bid to overcome the hostility of the natural environment where it was shot, in order to probe for a historical truth about an earlier humanity.
Directed by Ciro Guerra in only his third feature in eleven years, Embrace of the Serpent charts two narrative paths that converge and diverge in interesting ways. In one scene midway through the film, we see a rowing boat navigating from right to left. In it are a young and stocky tribesman, a Caucasian explorer and an ex-slave.
The tracking camera then tilts down to the glittering river. When it comes back up, we see another boat rowing from left to right. In it are an older tribesman and a different Caucasian explorer.
“Knowledge belongs to all. You do not understand that. You are just a white man.”
I think this scene best expresses the dreamlike style of the film, and brings past and present—or is it present and future?—together as a meditation on the insignificance of time, or in other words, the ephemeral if also eternal nature of existence.
It all sounds philosophical—the film really is!—but plot-wise, Embrace of the Serpent is about a white man who tries to locate a rare flower that would cure his ailment, with the aid of a special shaman.
Shot in black-and-white, it can be seen as a loose companion piece to Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), with both films having main figures attempting to seek out some kind of holy grail in the most inhospitable of places. Guerra’s film brings us deep into the Amazonian to ask of us to connect with the lost souls of its perished tribal inhabitants.
In a way, it is the antithesis of Aguirre, which expresses ruination through insanity, while Embrace of the Serpent offers a contemplative struggle to come to terms with notions of historical racism and universal spirituality through the turning of the medicine wheel. To dream is to heal.