Film review: EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT, from ‘Built For Speed’

The powerful, disturbing drama Embrace of the Serpent provides a scathing indictment of white colonialism and it’s destruction of indigenous cultures in the Amazon basin.

The film is based on the diaries of two scientists from different decades: German ethnographic researcher Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) and Botanist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis). Koch-Grunberg conducted a four year study of the native Amazonian people in the early 1900’s in which he documented the impact of white rubber barons on their communities.

The film’s central character, however, is indigenous shaman Karamakate (played as a young man by Nilbio Torres and 31 years later as an old man by Antonio Bolivar) through whom director Ciro Guerra explores the sadness and bitterness of a people whose world has been obliterated.

When Theodor falls ill his Amazonian guide takes him to Karamakate as he is the only person who knows the location of a fabled healing plant, the Yarkruna. Travelling upriver through the foreboding Amazon jungle, the three must battle the elements and their shared animosity. Their journey is paralleled with one taken 31 years later in which Karamakate guides Schultes along the Amazon River to discover what became of Theo.

With superb black and white cinematography and actual Amazon rainforest locations, the film is visually remarkable. Due to its raw elemental setting and solemn mood the film at times recalls the works of Rolf de Heer and even Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Also, the film features an amazing sound design bursting with the buzzing jungle cacophony that thoroughly immerses us in this strange and captivating world.

Embrace of the Serpent powerfully echoes Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness as the journey upriver becomes an exploration of the characters’ psyche and a damning depiction of the effects of European capitalism and religion on the native people. As it’s largely based on the writings of an ethnographer, the film, not surprisingly, is infused with the Amazonian people’s cultural rituals and behavioural codes.

The entire cast is terrific although Torres and Bolivar stand out as Karamakate at different ages. Each actor powerfully conveys Karamakate’s emotional turmoil as he attempts to preserve his moral beliefs while witnessing his home and culture being destroyed.

Although mostly low-key and naturalistic, the film does make some interestingly odd excursions into surrealism, particularly when depicting the effects of Karamakate’s potent home brew called Caapi. These tonal changes aren’t too jarring and fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey will particularly enjoy one trippy sequence after Schultes guzzles some Caapi.

Thoughtful, superbly acted, meticulously constructed, its only flaw is that it runs about 10 minutes too long. Otherwise, Embrace of the Serpent is a terrific antidote to the overblown emptiness of so many Hollywood films.

Nick’s rating: ****.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Ciro Guerra.

Release date: 28th July 2016.

Running time: 125 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.



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