“Embrace of the Serpent” (Colombia, 2015) directed by Ciro Guerra


“EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT’ (Colombia) directed by Ciro Guerra
(Best Foreign Language Film Nominee, 2016)
“Embrace of the Serpent” is visually ravishing, in black and white, emotionally rewarding, and intellectually satisfying. I’ve been thinking, that if/when director, Terence Malick sees it, he will wish he had made it, as it has similar preoccupations to his recent films. It confronts the most challenging and bewildering issues facing Mankind.
Contained in this amazing work, all the things we need to know about life on Earth! It is multi-layered, leaving us with many issues to ponder afterwards. The story is actually two similar stories, one taking place in 1909 and one in 1940, linked by Karamakate, the Native Amazonian Tribesman in the poster illustration, who guides two different white-men up the Columbian Amazon ( the titular “Serpent”), at two different stages of his own life… when a young adult, and as an old and lonely man, beginning to forget himself and everything he used to know. Both white men are searching for a rare, possibly even extinct plant, Yakruna, with profound healing properties. Of course, they are searching for more than that, but are only dimly aware of that fact.
The issues to ponder include:

profound ideas about spirituality,
the tragedy of Colonialism,
the damage done by religious conversion of people who already have their own deep spirituality,
the destruction of the wholeness of Nature and her balance, when white men begin to intrude, (in this case – rubber barons),
the way white man’s scientific and technical advancement separates him from Nature.
During the two men’s stories, it is twice stressed that all our “stuff” (material things) holds us back, down, and in a sort of quick-sand of dependency, preventing us from travelling spiritually, OR up the river Amazon. The canoes are too heavy. (This immediately reminds me of the teaching of The Buddha, respect for all living things, and that the River represents Life.)
There is a timeless archetypal theme of pursuing a “holy grail”, and strong echoes of “Heart of Darkness” (Joseph Conrad).
The importance of dreaming is stressed, and for those of us who live in Australia, there is a strong resonance that reminds us of our own Aboriginal people who also had this Dreaming wisdom and deep connection with aspects of Nature that we Westerners can barely even imagine, unless we are dreaming too.
The film’s story is based on actual events recorded in travel diaries of two white explorers… Theodor Koch-Grunberg from Germany (1909) and Richard Evans Schultes of USA(1940). The horrifying scenes with the misguided religious cult and their “Messiah” actually happened. Those scenes also link the two explorers’ visits to the river-side Mission, thirty-one years apart, by cause and effect. (The other link, of course. is Karamakate.)  Filmed on location in the Amazon, the  awe-inspiring power of nature is humbling to the protagonists, and to us in our comfortable cinema seats.
This film is like cry of agony from the heart of Mother Earth….”Please white people, change your ways before it’s too late!”
Lines of dialog uttered by Karamakate: “We must help the whites to understand us, or we’re finished,” and “The whites will consume and destroy everything.”
The interwoven structure of the film is ideal and the editing, cinematography, and acting, often by untrained local people are all superb. It is a profound Ecological prayer and a masterpiece of cinema.
Copyright – September, 2016, Cynthia Webb

About cynephilia

Lifetime student of and devourer of international Cinema. Artist, teacher, traveller - especially to my "other home", Java, Indonesia. Features writer for 14 years, for The Jakarta Post, national English language daily newspaper. I was born in New Zealand, but lived in Queensland, Australia since 1970. My profound link with Indonesia began in 1983, when visiting Bali (then an island of arts and of inspiration for an artist), and then again in 1994 when a visit to Yogyakarta, Java, began a process of that town and it's warm people becoming another home and extended family for me. Yogyakarta is the Artistic capital of Indonesia, and so it was the place for me. In 2000 I became a regular contributor about the arts for The Jakarta Post, and cinema, my lifetime passion, later began to become my focus for writing. The advent of The Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (APSA) in South East Queensland, launched in 2007 gave me opportunities to meet some the great film-makers of Asia, and see their amazing work. APSA is a kind of "Oscars" for the Asia-Pacific Region.
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