Director Ciro Guerra Starring Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis Country Of Origin Running Time 125 minutes Release Date 10th June
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT is a luscious, dreamy drug trip that looks and feels gorgeous. It is as abstract and expressive as any Bunuel film or Dali painting; as carefully observed as one of Kubrick’s masterpieces. It is a journey through time, and through the mysteries of the Amazon. But none of that is really the point.
This story – painstaking in its beautiful construction, which given the difficulties of production is no small accomplishment – is one of conflict. A film structured around conflict is a very Western look. Every fibre of its being pulsates with tension, and yet it simultaneously – and earnestly – professes harmony and oneness. It’s a baffling achievement.
The story cuts between two time periods, featuring the same white man’s guide, Karamakate, last surviving member of the Cohiuano tribe in Colombia. Both at the turn of the 20th century and some four decades later, his expertise is sought out by German ethnographers seeking the hallucinogenic properties of the Yakruna plant (fictionalised accounts of real people). The later traveller is obsessed with the journals of the earlier explorer, bringing with him pictures and accounts that nudge at the long-ago memories of Karamakate like bad dreams.
The wound tension, provoking all elements of the narrative, is introduced into the mix immediately from the film’s title. To embrace a serpent, in the Western world, is a juxtaposing action (‘embrace’ connoting positivity and ‘serpent’ negativity and the devil). However in the Amazonian tribes of Colombia, the serpent is the symbol you see when you open your mind and dream, letting it be timeless and connected to everything around you. What a Western colonial audience would symbolically associate with two conflicting senses, the native South Americans would see as a sacred act of harmony.
The film holds dear formal elements that give rise to this paradox: from its surface black and white tone to its core context of the colonial exploitation of the Amazonian native peoples, presented in the exploitative form of film which transcribes stories across the globe in order to make money. If we are being enlightened by Ciro’s story – a story he spent three years writing with Jacques Toulemonde Vidal – which juxtaposes the brutally pragmatic actions of colonial Westerners seeking things to sell in exotic places with the nature-facing simple lifestyle of the Amazonians – we must accept that Ciro felt the need to make the film in the first place, much like the white explorers felt the need to illuminate what the Western world was in the dark about all those years ago. We must accept that the film was made for, based in the historical filmic context of, a Western audience. We must accept that it has won prestigious awards at many of our film festivals. If we are enlightened by the idea of timelessness, connectivity, respect of nature and assurity in our own place in the world that he sells to us so effectively with those Western cinematic tools, where does documentation fit in? In other words: does Ciro’s evident endeavor to preserve the memory of the lost Columbian native tribes via cinema mean that he thinks they are less real, or lost, without it?
The most piercing bit of EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT addresses this head on. Karamakate explains, in his later life, looking back on a photo of him taken by that first white man who came seeking the natural treasures known to him and his tribe, the concept of a Chullachaqui: a soulless, memoryless avatar that looks exactly the same as you. Everybody has one.
“A ghost without time”, he calls it. The unnatural ills of the past resurface in one form or another, but always are they disconnected from the oneness professed by his people. If this doesn’t relate to the reproducibility of images and our obsession with documentation, it is subconsciously embedded in the writing and is too relevant to ignore.
This is a film not so much about the trauma of colonialism but the incompatibility of our ideologies, an incompatibility that is still giving rise to self-destructing stories that show us the evils of the past but can’t exist without them. There is so much richness in this film, and so much to talk about. But the final word on the subject, which I’m still deciding as to whether it knows or not – has to be: