Gareth was in town a couple of weeks ago and we got to watch one of his favourite films of the decade at Cinematheque. It will surely make my top ten of the year as well.
Reminding me of Fitzcarraldo, The Mission and Apocalypse Now, Embrace of the Serpent is nevertheless a wholly original and utterly spellbinding work of art. It tells the story of Karamakate, an indigenous Amazonian shaman, at two points in his life (1909 and 1940) when he is asked to guide a white man upriver in search of a sacred healing plant called yakruna.
Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), possibly the last survivor of his tribe, is still young, living by himself in the heart of the Amazonian jungle (in Colombia), when Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is near death, arrives in 1909, needing yakruna to heal him. In 1940, it is Evan (Brionne Davis), an American botanist, who, having read Theo’s diaries, wants the older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) to help him find the plant.
The two trips up the Amazon reveal the horrors of colonialism, including the enslavement and genocide of indigenous peoples by the Colombian rubber barons. One stop along the river, in both time periods, is particularly haunting, not least because it’s a Catholic mission and shows the way religion can be part of the horror.
My first response to watching Embrace of the Serpent was: “Wow. In the midst of superhero and special effects madness, some people are still making old-fashioned masterpieces.” Full of wonder, mystery and magic (as well as horror), Cio Guerra’s film is a breath of fresh air. While I kept wondering how green the locations really were, the black and white cinematography is gorgeous and adds to the mystery and the feeling that you are watching history unfold (by way of an old documentary).
The highlight of the film, however, is the character of Karamakate and the incredible performance of the two actors (or non-actors) who play him. A wise man who constantly makes us wonder who is the wiser and more civilized (the enlightened supposedly-advanced white people or the indigenous peoples being wiped off the earth), Karamakate reveals the oppression without, as Gareth points out, demonizing the oppressor. Remarkable.
Embrace of the Serpent gets an easy **** and is not to be missed. My mug is up.