The feverish, hallucinatory Embrace of the Serpent is the latest from Colombian director Ciro Guerra, and a major breakthrough for the filmmaker, having been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the 2016 Oscars. It belongs to a long lineage of surreal and strikingly composed adventure films, but Embrace of the Serpent is filled with a venomous anger aimed at the machinations and long-lasting effects of colonialism.
The Amazon rainforest, and its mighty river, are Guerra's muse throughout. Captured in stunning black-and-white images by cinematographer David Gallego, the jungle has as much presence on-screen as any character. Embrace of the Serpent was filmed on location, and the heat and humidity, as well as the endless rustling and crying of the setting are acutely felt and heard. Composer Nascuy Linares' menacing score also creates a powerfully unsettling ambience.
There are two separate story threads developed side-by-side, both of them set in the same place and sharing the character Karamakate, but set around forty years apart from one another. In 1909, Karamakate, (Nilbio Torres) believing he is the last of his people, aids the desperately sick Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his companion Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) to find a rare herbal cure in exchange for being reunited with his kin. In the 1940s, Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolívar), much changed by his earlier journey, goes on a very similar exhibition with the reserved and enigmatic Evan (Brionne Davis).
The simple story is layered with meaning and urgency. Immediately, the strong and ongoing racial tensions between the natives and the white men who enslaved them in order to grow rich off farming rubber are established. The film examines the way in which cultural traditions are eroded and eventually lost completely in the face of colonisation, evoked most directly by the distinct loneliness of the combative Karamakate.
As the film's central characters journey deeper into the jungle, they encounter things that are increasingly sickening and disturbing, haunted by a dark prophecy that Theo believes is on his tail. The film builds beautifully to a shocking climax that presents a ghastly mutant combination of the region's traditional culture and the half-implanted Christianity of colonial influence.
The film could have been a sorrowful elegy to a tumultuous and grisly time in South American history, but it is instead presented with an enthralling bitterness. It's ostensibly a retelling of a true story - that of ethnologist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg and biologist Richard Evans Schultes - but it is constructed in such a way that it almost feels like a parody of adventure films.
Embrace of the Serpent builds claustrophobia and dis-ease to the point where being caught up in its dark narrative is almost like the grip of the titular serpent. There is a beautiful pay-off at its end, though, with the simple spirituality of Karamakate transcending time and space to end the film on a beautiful and revelatory note. Many comparisons have been thrown around between this film and others, but none can aptly describe the experience of seeing it.
Embrace of the Serpent opens in cinemas on Thursday July 28th. There will be special advance screenings at Palace Cinemas from Friday July 22nd.