Ciro Guerra delivers a truly mind-bending tale of the quest for knowledge in Colombia’s Amazonas region. After the stunning power of Guerra's magic realist fable The Wind Journeys (2010), my anticipation could not have been higher for the UK premiere and, suffice to say, Maestro Guerra does not disappoint.
Embrace of the Serpent ('El Abrazo de la Serpiente', 2015 - Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina) directed by Ciro Guerra / screenplay by Ciro Guerra & Jacques Toulemonde Vidal / starring Jan Bijvoet, Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolívar, Brionne Davis, Yauenkü Migue / cinematography by David Gallego / music by Nascuy Linares / companies: Caracol Cine, Ciudad Lunar, Film Boutique
Shot on Colombia's Vaupés river – a tributary of the Rio Negro – Embrace of the Serpent marks the first production in over thirty years to use this extraordinary location. The jungle is both a font of knowledge, like a sprawling Mount Olympus, and a pit from which knowledge cannot escape. Knowledge is the prize for two white explorers. German ethnologist Theodore Koch-Grünberg (Borgman’s Jan Bijvoet) seeks the scared yakruna plant in 1909, when territorial conflicts rage between Colombia and Brazil and rubber barons are still pressing indigenous people into slave labor. In 1940, American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) follows the path laid-out in Koch-Grünberg’s diaries, once again seeking the yakruna. Both men rely on the help of native shaman Karamakate, who believes himself to be the last of the Cohuiano tribe. Distinguished by his powerful stature and the phallic stone that hangs around his neck, Karamakate is the lynchpin of this journey in search of knowledge. Alternately holding and forgetting the sacred knowledge of the jungle’s plants, his encounters with the white men lead him to question his philosophy that knowledge is for all men and should not be withheld.
Playing Karamakate as a young man, Nilbio Torres delivers a stunning performance as a principled youth, who transforms into an old man, played by Antonio Bolívar, condemned to solitude and no longer sure that he is even truly himself. As an outsider, abandoned, he fears himself to be a chullachaki, a hollow facsimile of a real man, who walks elsewhere in the world. As in traditional Amazonian legends, it is also possible that the white men that visit him are chullachakis come to lure him into the darkness, which not even the most experienced tracker can escape from.
Loosely adapted from the diaries of Theodore Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes Embrace of the Serpent debuted in the Cannes Director’s Fortnight earlier this year and quite rightly walked away with the Art Cinema Award. Shot in glorious Super 35mm black & white, David Gallego’s cinematography is as integral to understanding the story as the eloquent script and the uniformly excellent performances. The use of natural movement on the flowing water and the revelations and obfuscations of figures in the jungle transport the characters and audience between memories and emotions. Flashy camerawork and quick cuts are eschewed – they have no place on the river, where periods of time meld like two currents meeting. Nascuy Linares’ sonorous, otherworldly score is equally as seamless and hypnotic as Guerra and Gellego’s perfectly controlled visual language.
In a setting that does not change its appearance from one decade to the next, time becomes a more and more inconsequential notion and the coming and going of memories and the purpose of one’s mission are the only threadbare tethers to prevent the characters from evaporating into a world half-way between light and darkness.
The characters’ battle to understand their desire for knowledge is so deeply compelling and unusual to see on screen and it renders the story distinctly unpatronising of its indigenous characters and its audience. In this case it is highly appropriate that this film has been selected as Colombia’s entry for the Best Film in a Foreign Language at the forthcoming Academy Awards. The theme here also genuinely deepens the processes of thought and conflict within the characters. When a local tribe leader refuses to return Theodore’s compass to him, he becomes irate - not because his possession was stolen but because it will inevitably lead to the tribe forgetting their traditional knowledge of navigation. When Karamakate finds that his tribesmen are getting drunk on the brew of the yakruna he is confronted with the horror of men abusing a source of knowledge to become ignorant and separate themselves from reality. The anaconda, the serpent of the title and maker of the world, creates, destroys and succumbs to life. It is a source of knowledge and yet exists outside of comprehension. From a mountaintop it can be seen that the same is true of the serpentine river.
The confounding mixture of Spanish, German and native languages with which the characters communicate only supports the notion that even the most determined of men are doomed to be stranded in the darkness. Their only solace is in being stronger than those that would prohibit a language to be spoken and shut themselves away from the possibility of enlightenment. As such it is no surprise that these men of science brush roughly against the users and abusers of the Catholic faith.
Guerra’s work is partly reminiscent of the films of Werner Herzog for its understanding and incorporation of the way the jungle defies humanity to exist on anything other than the terms of the wilderness. Awareness of the past and the future, of concepts new and old, fades into insignificance. The emphasis on the protagonists' inability to dream is also distinctly Herzogian (Herzog has said that he, too, suffers from this and seeks dreams in his films). Time is inessential knowledge here, yet without it men risk becoming frozen, ineffective chullachakis, like images in a photograph.
Like Herzog, Guerra also has a talent for divining surreal, Goya-esque tableaux from situations so horrifying and surreal that it is tempting to believe that they must be the inventions of a baroque mind. But any familiarity with Colombian history and culture soon makes it apparent that what Guerra depicts in the jungle is chillingly plausible in the history of a truly mysterious continent.
Guerra’s tremendous success in capturing the fabled nature of Colombian landscapes and cultures in The Wind Journeys (Los Viajes del Viento) graduates to new strata of skill and intuition in Embrace of the Serpent. Spoken stories have been the keepers of human memory for as long as man has spoken aloud but in the 21st Century no keeper of our collective knowledge and memory speaks louder or with greater resonance than cinema. To reinterpret the journeys of Koch-Grünberg and Evans Schultes into fiction and tell this story as a film is most appropriate, for it communicates a tale of existence in the voice of the modern-day Francisco El Hombre.
After its screenings at LFF Embrace of the Serpent will arrive next to the Leeds International Film Festival in November and it is a bona fide must-see. Here’s hoping that Berlin-based Films Boutique nets a UK distribution deal soon!