Director: Ciro Guerra
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis
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When it comes to the cinematic canon, certain films come to mind when thinking of particular stories. For example, when it comes to tales of the mafia, you’re probably going to think of The Godfather or Goodfellas; they have left a distinct enough imprint on the notion of a mafia story that they’ve become the go-to reference points for the concept.
Now, when it comes to stories about madness brought about by venturing into the jungle, a couple of key films will generally come to mind. There’s Apocalypse Now, there’s Fitzcarraldo, and, of course, the masterpiece that is George of the Jungle. Why bring this up? Well, it’s the case that Ciro Guerra’s new film, Embrace of the Serpent, offers a delirium-inducing drive into the dark heart of nature that feels like little else we’ve seen before – a distinctive experience worthy of becoming one of those titans.
Part of that distinctive feel lies in its dazzling monochrome cinematography, with the film being the first feature to shoot in the Columbian Amazon region in over 30 years. Some of it comes from its time-jumping structure, with the film’s chronology gliding back and forth between an early 1900s expedition and one circa the first rumblings of the Second World War. In 1909, we follow German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Bijvoet) on a journey to find a rare plant that can cure him of a grave illness, his search being aided by the solitary warrior Karamakate (Torres). In the second intertwining story, an older Karamakate (Bolivar) leads another German, Richard Evans Schultes, who claims to be in search of the same plant, because he’s supposedly never been able to dream.
A big factor in Embrace of the Serpent’s success, though, is how it acts as a counterbalance to so many other films of an ostensibly similar nature. While Embrace of the Serpent does indeed contain some white guys going mad in the jungle, in the territory of supposed savages, this is an uncommonly nuanced story that sides far more with the native tribesman who is at odds with both the ‘enlightenment’ of his European companions and the jungle-razing white rubber barons on the periphery of the story. Karamakate never wavers in his cosmic convictions as a shaman over the years, but he does develop and becomes convinced of some ultimate purpose that the white man can provide for his near-extinct culture. Embrace of the Serpent is an anti-colonialism film, for certain, but Guerra is by no means keen to play with obvious archetypes.
It is a vision told with a determined dedication to authenticity (Torres is a genuine native Cubeo tribesman) alongside its more hallucinatory sequences. According to some interviews with Guerra, the last features to shoot in the area before his were some Italian exploitation films in the vein of Tarzan. Embrace of the Serpent is a defiant rejection of that representation of the Amazon and the cultures within it.