Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra presents his third feature film, Embrace of the Serpent, with quite the accolade behind it; an Academy Award nomination. With an endorsement of this nature, hopefully it should attract a broader, wider audience, which can only be a good thing, for the more people that indulge in this indelible, dreamlike piece of cinema, are rather unlikely to regret it.
Based around two separate accounts made by Western ethnographers, the expeditions of both Theo von Martins (Jan Bijvoet) and botanist Richard Evans (Brionne Davis) came 40 years apart, but Guerra plays them seamlessly next to one another, weaving in and out of their individual journeys, as they both set foot in the Amazon for the very same reason; to find a sacred healing plan, and uncover whether it’s as magical as the locals allude to. The one consistent within their parallel adventures, is that of Karamakate, played by Nilbio Torres in the past and Antonio Bolivar in the later years; a shaman who assists the explorers. While both men are intrigued by this plant they seek, along the way they come to terms with the oppressive nature of colonialism, and exactly how much of an effect it has had on the indigenous people who survive in the rainforest.
Though an element of guilt is prevalent when watching this endeavour, and witnessing the destructive imprint the West have left on the native tribes of the Amazon, there are no palpable antagonists in this piece, and neither von Martins nor Evans are painted out in a villainous manner, instead almost endearing in their sheer naivety. It’s vital this be the case as it forms more human protagonists, and their flaws enrich the viewer’s experience.
Guerra must be commended for never exploiting the natives himself, using many non-professional actors and studiously exploring their livelihood in an almost documentarian like way, taking a back seat and just observing (a rather stark contrast to the irresponsible manner Eli Roth had when approaching this environment in The Green Inferno). The structure is admirable too, as the two stories blend so effortlessly into one another, while the constant monochrome aesthetic ensures the differences remain subtle, and aren’t visually noticeable. The lack of colour also allows us to paint in our own landscape, indicative of a film that gives the viewer so much freedom to take as they wish, as such a multi-faceted production that is open to interpretation.
Guerra manages to create a trancelike, enchanting cinematic endeavour, and yet never compromises on the colonialist themes that ground the picture, which add a dark, bitter edge that compliments the more bewitching elements. In that regard there are shades to the likes of contemporary productions Tabu and Jauja – and comparisons made to films of that quality can only ever be a good thing.