Title: Embrace Of The Serpent
Director: Ciro Guerra
Major Players: Jan Bijyoet, Brionne Davis, Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar
Out Of Five: 4.5
It’s not so long since I watched a black and white film: it was Pink String And Sealing Wax. But it was also made in 1945, when monochrome was still the norm. As for my most recent contemporary black and white film …… well, I’m struggling. But it’s the startling choice of Columbian director, Ciro Guerra, for Embrace Of The Serpent.
The film is inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers who travelling through the Amazonian rain forest, separated by 40 years. First comes Theo (Jan Bijyoet) at the turn of the 20th century, who comes in search of the rare Yakruna plant for its medicinal and psychedelic properties. Forty years later comes Evan (Brionne Davis) who has read his journals and is following his footsteps, but with a very different agenda.
Connecting the two is the Amazonian shamen Karamakate, who guides both of them as a young man (played by Nilbio Torres) and an older one (Antonio Bolivar). A solitary figure, he’s the last of his tribe. Over the years, his body paint doesn’t change, nor do his adornments, although he does lose his hair. He’s changed very little: still alone, protective of the Yakruna, a man of his country and suspicious of the whites, as he calls them.
The stories of the two explorers run in parallel, with near-seamless transitions from one to the other. Both men, for instance, encounter disturbing religious outposts. Theo and the young Karamakate come across a group of children under the tutelage of a priest and discover he beats them brutally. Evan and the older shamen find themselves escorted to another establishment, run by a white who believes himself to be the Messiah. It’s a nightmare scenario, with some followers wearing hessian hoods like forerunners of the Klan. Both are as bad and corrupt as each other. And in both cases the shamen and his white cause disruption and have to beat a hasty retreat.
It’s all enormously seductive and the serpent has you in its coils within minutes, yet this is a film that needs to be digested for some time afterwards. It has a hypnotic quality, rather like the Yakruna itself, but it’s not all beauty and poetry: colonialism and exploitation linger like a dark thunder cloud and there is plenty of physical evidence of its horrors, from the scarred rubber trees to the petrified plantation worker who bears his own scars, including the stump where his arm used to be.
And the black and white photography? It’s stunning, all the more so because it’s an unexpected treatment of a lush landscape. Guerra isn’t interested in the colour. What he’s doing is re-creating the photographs of the original explorers, as if their counterparts in the film had brought a movie camera with them. You only have to look at the photographs at the end of the film to see the uncanny similarities – the explorers with the locals, Karamakate’s tall roofed house. There’s a breathtaking aerial shot of the rain forest with the river snaking through it, yet it disguises the destruction already happening under its canopy. The rubber plantations are just the start and Evan represents an even more destructive future.
It’s a film with a multitude of messages, about colonialism and religion, but also the environment, self-knowledge, tolerance ….. the list goes on. The sad thing is that the indigenous people we see portrayed here are, in reality, long gone and only the two journals that inspired this film have survived to tell their story.
Embrace Of The Serpent is released in cinemas and online on Friday, 10 June and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 9 June.