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Embrace of the Serpent

July 28, 2016

Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
Director: Ciro Guerra
Actors: Jan Bijvoet, Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolívar

the-new-film-embrace-of-the-serpent-conjures-a-forgotten-indigenous-vision-of-the-amazon-1452186262-crop_mobile-300x169.jpg (300×169)

Synopsis: An ageing Amazonian shaman, Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar), escorts an American botanist through the Colombian Amazon, plotting the same course he made with an eccentric German explorer, Theodor (Jan Bijvoet), some 30 years before.

Review: Form merges magically with content in this intuitively hypnotic and sensory treatise on colonialism in the deeps of the Colombian Amazon in the early decades of the 20th century. Taking the last survivor of his tribe, Karamakate, as the in-story scientists’ (and indeed our) conduit through the serpentine Amazon, director Ciro Guerra and his DP, David Gallego, have crafted one of the most stunning visual cinematic exhibitions in recent memory. And that’s not just cinematography as denotes scenery, but also ingenious framing, expert pans and of course the decision to film in timeless black and white.

Guerra’s narrative is intensely dreamlike as it weaves mesmerically from the framing 1940 story of an ageing Karamakate taking the shady American botanist, Evans, on the search for the Yakruna plant, to the 1909 expedition it mirrors when Karamakate accompanied a fervent, ailing German scientist, Theodor, and his guide on a similar voyage. The colonial politicking of Embrace of the Serpent is highly cerebral: a particular gem being Theodor giving Karamakate a photographic image of himself and trying to explain to Karamakate the provenance of this image (it’s a discussion on the notion of identity which Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida would gorge on.)

Arguably the apex to both the film and Guerra’s realisation are the intense, immersive sequences of the explorers stumbling across a truly demented Catholic mission some 30 years apart. It takes ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Apocalypse Now’s notion of renegade colonialists (in this case, demigod priests) and cranks it into overdrive, creating gripping drama to compliment the film’s sage and discursive musings. (July 2016)

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