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  Embrace of the Serpent Amazon Prime
Year: 2015
Director: Ciro Guerra
Stars: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenkü Migue, Nicolás Cancino, Luigi Sciamanna
Genre: Drama, Historical, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The place is the Amazon, the region now known as Colombia, and the time is around the early days of the twentieth century, where Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) lives mostly alone in the jungle as the last of his tribe. One day, as he sits contemplating the forest by the river, a canoe paddles up containing another native, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), who has been taken in by the ways of the white settlers, and an elderly scientist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is suffering from some form of fever that his companion informs Karamakate has no known cure. Or does it? His vanished people were known to have access to a special plant that could act as a panacea, so Theo's life could be saved if the three of them seek it out...

What was so special about Theo, anyway? The answer to that was knowledge, which in director Ciro Guerra's shot on location film was the most precious commodity there is, and to lose it can have truly tragic consequences. The point being that the Amazon tribes that were destroyed by the invading whites from the West will not only be able to share what we know with those who arrived later, but they themselves will be utterly forgotten as if they had never existed thanks to being wiped from the face of the planet by so-called progress. But while there was a degree of guilt about what had been inflicted upon the Amazonian Indians fuelling this drama, it was not about to write off the white folks utterly.

That was thanks to the Westerners like Theo, who was a real person as half Embrace of the Serpent had been inspired by the diaries of scientist Theodor Koch-Grunberg, a man who made it his life's work to record the lives, beliefs and customs of the tribes who were in danger, not to mention the flora and fauna of the jungle. There was the old story about how with so much of the Amazon being destroyed daily, many species had been lost forever, and among those may have been the cure for cancer, and that propelled the plot, the fears of what was being cut down and banished from the surface of the Earth thanks to out of control greed; here, the rubber barons were the early 20th century equivalent of the loggers and oil drillers.

If this had not been drawn from actual events, you would be tempted to think Guerra had over-partaken of readings of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but there was another storyline running parallel to Theo's search for succour, and that was another explorer from thirty years later, Evan (Brionne Davis), who catches up with Karamakate, now an old man, and tells him he has proof that members of his tribe still exist. This piques the native's interest not least because he has felt like a shell of a man for being so cut off from his culture for so long, so any opportunity for a genuine homecoming is something to be seized upon, and he agrees to guide Evan on a canoe trip. Evan was a real person too, also a diarist, Richard Evans Schultes, and he is used as a representation of how the denizens of the modern landscape carry far too much baggage.

Literally and metaphorically, as this was thematically rich if you wanted to soak up more than just the basic adventure along the Amazon that you could easily appreciate. Shot in deep contrast monochrome so as to better approximate the diary writers' photographic records, there was a touch of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in this as well, as if to rebuke that classic's idea that you had to go out into space to expand your consciousness - according to this, all you needed was here on Earth. We see the characters encounter other seekers after truth on their journeys, from the natives who are picking up on the Western ways which Theo fears will supplant their own, to the religious fanatics who are actively stamping out those Indian beliefs and replacing them with far more ignorant Christianity, or it is in the manner they teach and enforce it. From the priest who beats faith into his poor young charges to the self-styled Messiah with a couple of thousand crazed followers, the human interest was as vivid as the natural material, though as a film it skirted a little close to smug, sandal-wearing, muesli-knitting self-actualisation. Nevertheless, it was intelligent and visually engrossing, if very much a message movie. Music by Nascuy Linares.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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