Granger on Movies: ‘Embrace of the Serpent’
Fairfield Citizen film critic Susan Granger reviews the new movie, “Embrace of the Serpent.”
Having recently returned from a trip on the Amazon River in South America, I was intrigued by this Oscar-nominated meditation about the devastation of colonialism on the Cohiuano, one of Colombia’s indigenous tribes, brutally ravaged by the rubber industry and Roman Catholic missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The story focuses on a native shaman named Karamakate, played alternately by Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar Salvador. Angry and grieving, he’s the sole survivor of his people and, over the course of 40 years, develops a relationship with two different scientists.
Filmed primarily in black-and-white by cinematographer David Gallego, it’s a fictionalized passage, based on the real-life journals of two explorers who traveled through Amazonia during the last century, adapted by Colombian writer/director Ciro Guerra and co-writer Jacques Toulemonde Vidal.
From 1903-09, Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), an ailing German ethnologist travels downriver by canoe seeking the sacred, difficult-to-find Yakruna plant, said to have unique healing powers. This miraculously curative hallucinogen is found on rubber trees, according to his native guide, Manduca.
Decades later, Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), an American botanist carrying the German’s journals, retraces his predecessor’s path. Their explorations and experiences in the rain-forest are intertwined, as they’re forced to discard their baggage, the accouterments of so-called civilization, and return to a more primitive state of nature.
“The indigenous world speaks of a different concept of time,” Guerra explains. “Time to them is not a line, as we see it in the West, but a series of multiple universes happening simultaneously. It is a concept that has been referred to as ‘time without time’ or ‘space without space.’”
In Spanish and various tribal languages with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Embrace of the Serpent” is an evocative, exotic 8, surreal in its primal eloquence and spirituality.