Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Embrace of the Serpent (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets  by Ian Brockway

The Embrace of the Serpent

Ciro Guerra's Oscar-nominated film "The Embrace of the Serpent" is a hypnotic and gripping analysis of two European explorers and their exchanges with indigenous people. It is as rich and satisfying as any novel by Joseph Conrad or Patrick White.

In the Amazonian jungle, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) a German botanist who has become sickened by a mysterious ailment, seeks treatment. The Amazonians are suspicious of the white man, naturally thinking that he is to blame for eradicating tribes.  Theo manages to convince a shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) that he is without malice or desire for conquest and only wants to search for the sacred plant that might cure him. Karamakate takes the weak scientist on a series of misadventures, one involving an mad priest who flogs children with a whip. During each episode, Theo grows more and more mystified, while his guide grows more passive and opaque. Karamakate blows some powder into Theo's nostrils but there is no guarantee of health or well-being.

In a parallel story, Evan (Brionne Davis) an American botanist, strives to retrace Theo's path and find the yakruna plant that has hallucinogenic and divine  properties. Evan also meets the now older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) and tries to persuade him that he is not a conquerer. Needless to say, history repeats itself. Evan tries to ingratiate himself but this has little success; Karamakate merely tolerates the Westerner. The two happen upon the same missionary school  depicted in the first segment, but the school has now grown severe, with a raving self-proclaimed Jesus figure and some quasi-voodoo rituals. Evan is increasingly left by himself, mute and silent with questions for company.

Gradually one realizes that Theo and Evan are very much the same person.

The cinematography by David Gallego is extraordinary, showing the carnal beauty of the jungle in a black and gray exoticism. This, combined with the enigmatic and often unsettling story, gives the film a one two punch. The hallucinatory montage alone is as startling as it is surprising leaping off the screen with a burst equal in power to the first revelation of color shown in "The Wizard of Oz."

But above all "The Embrace of the Serpent" meticulously illuminates a clash of cultures with care and feeling, while also depicting a wilderness with the strange magic of a far away and distant planet.

Write Ian at

No comments: