Every now and then, with great infrequency (alas), a film comes along that is like no other and completely knocks you for six, and that is Embrace of the Serpent. The first Colombian film to be nominated for an Oscar — it lost to Son of Saul, should you set any store by such things — it was filmed in the Colombian section of the Amazon basin, with a script developed in consultation with native tribes, and tells the story of a shaman’s encounters with two white scientist explorers, which unfold in different time periods.
So far, so National Geographic; a world disappeared by colonialism and all that (sorry; our bad). But this is so powerfully imagined and realised, and so engrossing, and so painful, that the experience becomes one of bearing witness, cinematically, and if you’re not up to that? There is always Jennifer Aniston in Mother’s Day, which also opens this week, and sees Ms Aniston play ‘a stressed-out single mom who learns her ex-husband is marrying a younger woman’. Your call.
It is written and directed by Ciro Guerra, a Colombian whose starting point was the real-life diary of Theodor Koch-Grünberg, the German ethnologist who first documented the Amazon in the early 1900s. The film opens during this time, with Karamakate (played by Nilbio Torres, as a young man) who, we quickly understand, is the last of his tribe, the rest having been wiped out by the rubber barons. He lives remotely in isolation and is squatting watchfully at the river’s edge, in all his gorgeous physicality — buttock cheeks hard enough to crack nuts with, I swear; even Brazils — when a canoe approaches carrying Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his travelling companion, Manduca (Yauenku Migue), who was enslaved to the barons until Theo bought his freedom. But now Theo is deathly ill. Malaria, presumably. And they’d heard that Karamakate is a great healer. Will he help? No, says Karamakate. He will never help ‘a white’. But he’s talked into it when Theo tells him that there are survivors from his tribe, and he knows where they live. So they set off, to find Karamakate’s people, and also the yakruna, a rare flower, which, says Karamakate, will provide a permanent cure for Theo’s sickness.
This is not a morally discreet film, or a politically timid one. In what is effectively a road trip by river, every stop along the way meets the devastation wrought by colonialism; the abuses of the rubber trade, the mutilated slave who begs to be shot, the destruction of the landscape, the Catholic priest who cruelly whips the orphaned children in his care. It is also told in tandem with a parallel story, set 40 years later, when yet another white scientist trucks up. This is Evan (Brionne Davis), a botanist who has read Grünberg’s diaries and also wishes to find the yakruna. He, too, enlists the help of Karamakate, who is now old (and played by Antonio Bolívar), and whose buttock cheeks are not so proud but who, after some reluctance, again complies. So it’s effectively a road trip, by river, made twice.
However, simply informing you what happens, incident by incident, does the film a massive disservice, as it does not reveal the depth of Guerra’s vision, or the beauty of that vision, as realised via strangely lush black-and-white compositions that burst into colour, only momentarily and hallucinogenically, at the very end. And it’s not simply one diabolical evil after another. There is nuance, as when a tribal chief steals Theo’s compass, and Theo becomes angry, saying a compass will erode the native know-how of celestial navigation, and it’s the two worlds looking each other up and down, until Karamakate says fatalistically: ‘You cannot forbid them to learn.’
Although this will likely be compared to Roland Joffé’s The Mission and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, it isn’t, in fact, similar to either as here neither the film-maker nor the protagonist is a white European — this is the inside looking out, rather than the outside looking in — and also no extra was paid a dollar a day to pull a ship over a hill and die for his trouble. This is extraordinary, audacious cinema that comes at its subject from a unique angle and is compellingly interesting for every minute of its two, colossally sad hours. But, like I said, if you aren’t up to it there is always Mother’s Day, which co-stars Kate Hudson as ‘a fitness freak who doesn’t tell her parents she has a family’. Your call.
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