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Embrace of the Serpent

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Visually exquisite journey through the Amazon, visiting one tribesman at two different points in the 20th Century.

Image of Embrace of the Serpent

@ Glasgow Film Theatre,  until Thu 16 Jun 2016

Ciro Guerra/ Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina / 2015 / 125 min

There is no lack of writers or filmmakers reckoning with Europe’s colonial past, and The Embrace of the Serpent is a valuable addition to the tradition of the indigenous gaze.  The Colombian director Ciro Guerra takes the audience on an adventure through the Amazon and its native tribes and cultures lead by Karamakate, the last surviving member of his tribe.

In fact, the adventure consists of two journeys at different historic moments, both involving a ‘white’ man on scientific explorations in the Amazon.  It is 1909 and Theodor, a scientist hailing from a distant country (Germany), succumbs to a potentially mortal and unknown disease.  There is a chance the “yakruna” flower may be the cure, so he asks of Karamakate to help him find the mysterious plant.  The second voyage takes place years later when an American botanist Evans, learning from the books of Theodor, tracks down an aged Karamakate and urges him to find the same flower.

The old man is merely a shadow of his juvenile self, living alone and suffering from increasing degradation of memory.  He has forgotten the customs of his own tribe, of which he is the last living member.  He has effectively become what his tribe calls a “chullachqui”, an empty mindless image of himself, void of any notion of past or present.  Having witnessed himself the destruction of rubber barons, Karamakate is a hesitant guide, but each of the journeys is an opportunity for him as well – in 1909, there is the chance to find other members of his tribe, and later, to recuperate his memory. So, reluctantly, he concedes.

The film and the travels are riddled with doubles, divisions, reflections and visual reverberations: two white men with the same function in the structure of the story, two versions of Karamakate. The men and the cultures are weight against the marks they have left behind: the fan-like carvings on the rubber tries, the savage cuts on the indigenous bodies, Theo’s writings and sketches of the Amazonian cultures.

Guerra offers us a visually exquisite and carefully arranged gift of the rainforest. The only weak point of the film is the excessive spiritualism of the finale. The line between a film in praise of  Amazonian cultures and clichéd portrayals of the indigenous way of life is a feeble one, and for the most part, Guerra does not stray into “Chatwinesque” idealization of indigenous’ unity with nature.

/ @martic_mat


Marta Matvijev is a Croatian-born Glasgow based arts journalist with a keen interest in Latin American and Iberian literature and cinema, independent film, representations of women and gender issues and subversive uses of popular culture.

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