Three Reasons to Watch: Embrace of the Serpent
Every week, we pick a key film from the Curzon Home Cinema collection. This week, as Ciro Guerra's Waiting for the Barbarians plays at the Venice Film Festival, we focus on his phantasmagorical 2014 international breakthrough.
Channelling the early work of Werner Herzog (particularly 1972's Aguirre, the Wrath of God) and Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, 1970), whilst forging its own unique path into cinematic bat-shit craziness, Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra created both a visually resplendent and apocalyptic vision of the world with his celebrated third feature. Embrace of the Serpent was a radical departure for a director whose two previous films had been low-key dramas. Wandering Shadows (2004) was a two-hander unfolding on the streets of Bogotá, while The Wind Journeys (2009) was a low-key road movie played out upon the majesty of Colombia's extraordinary landscape.
Embrace of the Serpent covers two time periods: 1909 and 1940. Both find explorers – one German, the other an American following in the footsteps of his European forbear – are in search of a plant with mythical properties. Aside of their mission, they are linked by the presence of Amazonian shaman Karamakate who, in the years between the two explorers' journeys, has lost touch with his tribe and their traditions. The men's journey along the winding Amazon is full of threat and wonder. The further the explorers travel into the vast, labyrinthine complex of waterways, the more their grasp on sanity becomes tenuous. Likewise, Karamakate no longer understands the world around him.
Guerra and cinematographer David Gallego shot Embrace in widescreen black and white. The effect is startling, particularly in the film's more violent scenes, where blood appears pitch black and the dark flow of the Amazon can appear both seductive and threatening. But that world is itself under threat. Like the fires that currently rage through the Amazon basin, spreading on a massive scale to surrounding areas, Embrace touches on the way various governments and corporations have attempted to strip the region of its natural resources – in this case through the rubber trade. The trees are literally bleeding as the explorers venture into the dense jungle and the indigenous peoples living in the path of the prospectors are either enslaved or murdered.
Guerra, along with producer Cristina Gallego as co-director, were responsible for Birds of Passage (2018). That film offered up a singular take on the South American drugs trade. For his first English language film, Guerra turns to J.M. Coetzee's novel Waiting for the Barbarians, with a cast that includes Johnny Depp, Mark Rylance and Robert Pattinson. His eye for visually dazzling sequences is extraordinary. But his first international success remains his most dazzling. Like Aguirre, Wrath of God, Apocalypse Now and El Topo, it increases in strangeness as its story progresses. There are stunning set pieces, but its strength lies in its hallucinatory effect. We may not be in possession of the mind-altering drugs the characters consume, but Embrace of the Serpent remains the trippiest film of the decade.
Three reasons to watch Embrace of the Serpent
• Karamakate. As played by Nilbio Torres in his youth and Antonio Bolivar as the older guide, the character is both the heart of the film and evidence of the changes that have taken place in this world. He is, by turns, wise, witty and foolish. And it's these changes in behaviour, as we shift back and forth in time, which keeps us on our toes.
• The cult leader sequence. Of all the film's sequences that bear close comparison to Coppola's version of 'Heart of Darkness', it's the encounter with a crazed cult leader that could easily have been dropped into Apocalypse Now. Like Kurtz's fortress, human life is cheap here and morality has been skewed beyond recognition. It could have become the backdrop to a whole film, but Guerra just features it in one surreal sequence.
• The finale. After battling through the dense jungle, the 1940s adventurers end the journey on a deserted mountain. It's less a final destination than an acknowledgement that these characters are forever lost to the world.
Embrace of the Serpent is available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema