By Justin Browning (Horsham, West Sussex, UK)
Embrace of the Serpent is the latest effort from Colombian director Ciro Guerra – and it is a modern masterpiece. With great intelligence and subtlety, this work of art addresses themes of cultural conflict and decay, specifically regarding the disappearance of native societies from the Amazonian rainforest. This is achieved by telling the stories of two European explorers, Theo (Jan Bijovet) and Evan (Brionne Davis) as they journey separately through the forest in search of the fabled yakruna plant. Each is accompanied by Karamakate, the sole survivor of his people, in their search. The plot is structured so that these temporally and spatially divided tales, one of Karamakate guiding Theo in his youth and one of him guiding Evan in his old age, are told in parallel.
Having entered the theatre with no prior knowledge, the fact that Karamakate was in fact the guide in both plot arcs came as something of a revelation to me in the film’s closing moments, when his older version finally remembers his past and realises this fact himself. This only served to make the climax all the more moving, adding to the sense of revelation which I felt throughout the film’s finale. For most of its run-time, Embrace feels like some sort of primitively poignant road trip as we are taken on a journey through the early twentieth-century Amazon, witnessing the effects of European encroachment on the native inhabitants. There are moments of peaceful coexistence, and there are moments of confusion or even sheer horror: Guerra effectively depicts the spectrum of consequences of the intrusions, covering issues ranging from superficially well-meaning Christian missions to merciless rubber barons. All is faced with a scrutinising gaze of unflinching honesty.
The camerawork is simple yet effective, interchanging moments of static observation with dynamic winding passages as we follow our characters through the thick jungle. The use of black-and-white contributes to the uncomplicated approach and the quietly bleak tone. While the lack of colour washes out the forest, the sound simultaneously brings it to life: as soon as the opening shot begins, the gentle sound of disturbed water comes to the fore; and soon it is superceded by the wall of sound created by the accumulated activity of the jungle life. This contrast certainly makes for a unique sensory experience.
The themes of the film which have been somewhat obscure throughout truly coalesce in the final act, masterfully brought together as the journey reaches its end. The two strands end in drastically different ways, one depicting destruction and despair as the Amazonian people, already vulnerable to European domination, tear themselves apart: the other offers redemption and a glimmer of hope that the two greatly different societies might coexist. Karamakate is the heart of both tales and embodies much about the plight of the native people, acting as the centre of a moving and thought-provoking experience.
Rather than ruin the experience by going into greater detail, I will simply implore you to watch this film and decide for yourself what message it conveys – you will see nothing else like it this year, or probably any other.