Film Notes: Embrace of the Serpent (2015) Original title: El abrazo de la serpiente directed by Ciro Guerra

CO-VE-AR / 125 minutes / b&w / Ciudad Lunar Producciones, Caracol Cine, Buffalo Films and Dago Producciones Dir: Ciro Guerra Pro: Cristina Gallego Scr: Ciro Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal loosely based on the journals of two explorers who travelled through the Colombian Amazon during the last century: the German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and the American Richard Evans Schultes Cine: David Gallego Mus: Nascuy Linares Cast: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar, Yauenku Miguee, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis Original version: Cubeo, Huitoto, Wanano, Tikuna, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin Release Date: (Cannes Film Festival) 15 May 2015. (Spain) 19 February 2016.

Synopsis: Tracking two parallel odysseys through the Amazon, this historical epic from Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra offers ethno-botanical adventure, mysticism, and a heart-rending depiction of colonialism laying waste to indigenous culture. In 1909, an ailing German explorer enlists the help of a young shaman in his search for a rare flower that he believes could cure him of his fatal illness. Their journey takes them through rivers and jungles ravaged by European interference, climaxing at a mission where a sadistic Spanish priest lords over a huddle of young indigenous orphans. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative set in the same region in 1940, an American explorer conducts his own search for the elusive flower in the company of the same, now aged shaman in a landscape brutalized by the rubber trade. Recalling such visionary films as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Manand Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, this elegiac adventure story surveys a vanishing way of life and the natural world that we neglect (and abuse) at our peril. (Source: Toronto International Film Festival)

Embrace_of_the_Serpent_posterBegoña and I had the chance to see last Thursday El abrazo de la serpiente. The film tells two parallel stories, taking place in 1909 and 1940, both starring Karamakate (Nilbio Torres in ’09, Antonio Bolivar in the ‘40s), an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his tribe. He travels with two scientists, German Theodor Koch-Grünberg and American Richard Evans Schultes – here transformed into the characters Theodor (Jan Bijvoet from Borgman) and Evan (Brionne Davis) -, to look for the rare yakruna, a sacred plant. The film is loosely inspired by the diaries written by the two scientists during their field work in the Amazon.  The film won the Art Cinema Award in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards. See my previous post here. Filled with regret over the loss of his people and unable to fully trust the men he agrees to accompany downriver, Karamakate ultimately proves an invaluable resource to the explorers, both of whom are curious about his culture and willing to go along for the ride without knowing where they’re headed. Theodor, who’s suffering from a fatal illness, is especially dependent on the witch doctor’s powers, taking hits of an herbal medicine (that could be some form of cocaine) in order to stay alive. The film is of a great aesthetic beauty and has reminded me The Heart of Darkness. My only regret is that I found it excessively long and I got the impression that the authors were not able to find an appropriate ending to what could have been, otherwise, an extraordinary film. In any case, a film that is well worth seeing.

Ciro Guerra was born on Río de Oro (Cesar, Colombia) in 1981 and studied film and television at the National University of Colombia. At the age of 21, after directing four multi-award-winning short films, he wrote and directed La sombra del caminante (The Wandering Shadows), his feature directorial debut, which won awards at the San Sebastian, Toulouse, Mar de Plata, Trieste, Havana, Quito, Cartagena, Santiago, and Warsaw film festivals, and was selected for 60 more, including Tribeca, Locarno, Seoul, Pesaro, Seattle, Hamburg, Kolkata, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul, and Guadalajara. His second feature film, Los viajes del viento (The Wind Journeys), was part of the Official Selection – Un Certain Regard of the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. It was released in 17 countries and selected by 90 festivals, including Toronto, Rotterdam, San Sebastián, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, and London, receiving different awards in Cannes, Santa Bárbara, Málaga, Santiago, Bogotá, and Cartagena. It was recently selected in a national critic’s poll as one of the 10 most important Colombian films. All of Guerra’s feature films to date have been chosen to represent Colombia in the Academy Awards®

Director’s Statement
Whenever I looked at a map of my country, I was overwhelmed by great uncertainty. Half of it was an unknown territory, a green sea, of which I knew nothing. The Amazon, that unfathomable land, which we foolishly reduce to simple concepts. Coke, drugs, Indians, rivers, war. Is there really nothing more out there? Is there not a culture, a history? Is there not a soul that transcends?

The explorers taught me otherwise. Those men who left everything, who risked everything, to tell us about a world we could not imagine. Those who made first contact,
During one of the most vicious holocausts man has ever seen. Can man, through science and art, transcend brutality? Some men did. The explorers have told their story. The natives haven’t. This is it.

A land the size of a whole continent, yet untold. Unseen by our own cinema. That Amazon is lost now. In the cinema, it can live again. (Ciro Guerra)

The Location
In this moment, it is not possible for me to know, dear reader, if the infinite jungle has started on me the process that has taken many others that have ventured into these lands, to complete and irremediable insanity.

If this is the case, I can only apologize and ask for your understanding, for the display I witnessed in those enchanted hours was such, that I find it impossible to describe in a
language that allows others to understand its beauty and splendour; all I know is that, like all those who have shed the thick veil that blinded them, when I came back to my senses, I had become another man. (Theodor Koch-Grünberg, 1907)

Many years after Koch-Grünberg’s diary entry, filmmaker Ciro Guerra and his crew have become explorers of another kind, ones who carried their cameras deep into the jungle to rediscover part of that unknown Amazonia. Embrace of the Serpent, filmed during the course of seven weeks in the jungles of Vaupés, is the first fiction feature to be shot in the Colombian Amazon in more than 30 years. It is also the first Colombian film to feature an indigenous protagonist and to be told from his perspective.

But beyond Amazonia —which covers several states of the country and way beyond its frontiers, and is the refuge of hundreds of native communities, their customs and languages, many of which are now lost— this is also a story about friendship, loyalty, and betrayal. It is told with the valuable help of international stars Jan Bijvoet (Borgman) and Brionne Davis, as well as the natives Antonio Bolívar Salvador, Nilbio Torres, and Yauenkü Miguee, as well as dozens of representatives of the different tribes that dwell in this faraway land, so unknown to most Colombians and so coveted by foreigners. The crew’s purpose was to approach the native communities and establish a relationship of mutual knowledge and respect, being transparent in every negotiation and always remembering that this is their land.

The screenplay was mostly written by Ciro Guerra during the course of four years, with cowriter Jacques Toulemonde coming on board for the final drafts, helping to shape a nonwestern tale for audiences used to western storytelling. It’s worth noting that, of the very few films that have been shot in the Amazon, almost all of them are told from the explorer’s point of view, and Amazon natives are often seen as primitive savages.

This was a multiracial, multicultural, multilingual set: apart from the Belgian and U.S. protagonists, the crew included people from Peru, Venezuela, México, and Colombians from Bogotá, Cali, Santa Marta, and Boyacá, as well as natives from the Ocaina, Huitoto, Tikuna, Cubeo, Yurutí, Tukano, Siriano, Karapano, and Desano tribes, all of them native of Vaupés.

The exuberant landscape of the Colombian Amazon was both surprising and intimidating for the crew. The chosen location is part of an unknown, unseen Amazon, the same place where the explorers whose diaries inspired the story (Koch-Grünberg and Schultes) found a great human and cultural richness.

Besides all the support from the indigenous communities, as well as members of the Civil Defense and a nurse, the crew had the special protection of a “payé,” a shaman of the local tribes, who joined them and did all types of ceremonies to ask for the help of the jungle in keeping them safe from disease, animals, and bad weather. (Source: Official Site Press Kit)

International Cinephile Society

The Hollywood Reporter Movie Review

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