Writer/director Ciro Guerra has made a number of impressive achievements in his career thus far, with all three of his feature films being Colombia’s entries in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards in the year of their release. His latest, Embrace of the Serpent, was the first Colombian film to ever be nominated, and it’s enjoyed pretty much universal acclaim from critics.
Embrace of the Serpent is made up of two entwining tales, with one story taking place in 1909, the other in 1940. It was based loosely on the field journals of two scientists – one German (Theodor Koch-Grunberg), the other American (Richard Evans Schultes). The characters of Koch-Grunberg and Schultes in the film are on a quest to find the rare yakruna plant.
But at the centre of both stories is indigenous tribesman Karamakate, the younger version played by Nilbio Torres, the older by Antonio Bolívar. Karamakate’s aloneness is total: he’s the last survivor of his tribe. The rest of his people – and a vast number of indigenous people from different tribes – have been wiped out by the rubber barons, whose greed has decimated the landscape.
The forest is also a central character in the narrative, with its mysteries and secrets. Guerra presented the forest as female because for the indigenous people, it has this connotation.
Embrace of the Serpent was filmed in black and white. Perhaps unusual for a film so full of such vast natural imagery, but it was a careful choice Guerra made. He felt there was no way he could capture the landscape – where its people have 50 words for ‘green’ – and do it justice. By presenting the images devoid of colour, it became up to the audience to imagine its beauty – which is far more stunning. It really worked for me.
The film isn’t just rich in imagery, but linguistically, too, with no less than nine languages used. It’s the second film in this Lotterywest Festival Films season after Sherpa to be told principally from the perspective of an indigenous person, and it’s great to see these stories making it to the big screen. As with Sherpa, Guerra involved the indigenous people in the making of the film. The actors playing Karamakate were from the area, and Guerra spent three months with them, teaching them about acting and film. The performances by Torres and Bolívar are believable and without pretence. I found Karamakate endearing and, at times, highly amusing.
The quest for the yakruna plant was a fictional one, as was the name of Karamakate’s tribe. This was out of respect for indigenous culture, and also because Guerra didn’t want the film to turn into an anthropological study.
In Embrace of the Serpent, the white explorers are researching cultures and places that have never been documented. It seems that with this film, Guerra has picked up the charge. In keeping with the area’s long tradition of storytelling, the film has a dreamlike, mythical quality that was a pleasure to watch unfold. While not without some very dark, difficult-to-watch moments, it’s impressively put together and is not a film you’ll want to miss.
Listen to the podcast of Gemma’s review live on Breakfast with Caitlin on RTR FM 92.1 here.
Embrace of the Serpent is now showing as part of Lotterywest Festival Films, Season 2. It’s exclusively at UWA Somerville nightly until Sunday 27 March (no screening Good Friday). Tickets/more info: perthfestival.com.au