Friday, November 27, 2015

2015 Top Ten List #8 Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (El abrazo de la serpiente)            A-                 
Colombia  Venezuela  Argentina  (125 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Crio Guerra    Official site    

Winner of the CICAE award at Cannes, which promotes art cinema, this surprisingly haunting period film, shot in black and white, with a brief expanse into color near the end, is not nearly as inventive or fantastical as Miguel Gomes’s 2013 Top Ten List #4 Tabu (2012), though it exists in an entirely different universe, offering a unique vantage point of those historically connected to Amazon rain forests and the indigenous population residing there.  The film is a road map for a journey into the past, exposing the brutal effects of colonialism imposed upon an indigenous population in Colombia, including the aftereffects of centuries of barbaric atrocities, slave labor, forced religious conversions, an elimination of their native languages, all highlighting the mammoth differences in cultural perspective between whites and local natives, as whites have plundered the rain forests in search of rubber and annihilated all but the last traces of an indigenous population, where the surviving native tribes no longer trust white people, having learned from personal experience that scheming whites are the lowest scourge of the earth.  The idea of profiting off the natural treasures found growing in the rain forest seems preposterous to the native people, who have for centuries developed a reverence for the sacred and curative powers of natural plants, such as the prized yakruna flower with alleged healing powers that whites wish to harvest in order to extract the purest rubber, where all whites see in the flower are dollar signs.  Even as these explorers hide their real intentions of what they plan to do with this plant if they find it, their writings about their expeditions provide the only window into this lost world.  What distinguishes this film is its ability to frame so much of the narrative around a non-white cultural perspective, holding a mirror up to Western civilization’s pattern of abuses in the region, offering a scintillatingly refreshing viewpoint that artistically evokes a curative solution for the hubris and arrogance that has perpetually guided outsiders into the region. 

Blending fact and fiction, the interconnected narrative follows a dual track thirty years apart, based upon the diaries of German ethnologist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg in 1909, played by Jan Bijvoet from Borgman (2013), and another expedition that followed in his footsteps by American biologist and plant enthusiast Richard Evans Schultes in the 1940’s, played by Brionne Davis from AVENGED (2013), who had read Theo’s book, where each journey into the Amazon rain forest was in search of an elusive flower with amazing medicinal properties, where both men come in contact with the same medicine man or shaman, Karamakate, Niblio Torres in his youth and Antonio Bolivar as the older man, the last surviving member of his tribe in a region overrun by colonialists.  The blending of time adds a surreal quality to the film, where the slower pace of life along the river traversing by canoe through spectacular jungle foliage is already depicted in a lush, dreamlike atmosphere, beautifully shot by David Gallego, with an extraordinary sound design by Carlos García, enriched by the vivid sounds and sights of the flora and fauna, where as many as nine different languages are spoken along with native songs and ceremonial chants.  Wasting little time, the film gets right into the heart of the story, where a young Karamakate waits on a riverbank with a painted face in ceremonial attire, spear in hand, wearing only a loin cloth as a canoe approaches carrying a deathly-ill German scientist and a native companion Maduca (Yauenkü Migue) dressed in clothing worn by whites.  Asking if he would save his friend’s life, the shaman refuses, claiming it was the white man that destroyed his village and wiped out his entire tribe, where he’s all that’s left, showing an equal amount of contempt for both of them, telling them to go look elsewhere.  When Theo suggests there are survivors from his tribe and he knows where to find them, the irritated Karamakate reluctantly agrees to help, so long as they disturb nothing, while refusing to eat meat or fish and leaving the jungle intact.  Blowing a substance (likely a mixture of coca leaves) directly into his nose, Theo soon recovers, readily abiding by a new set of guidelines established by Karamakate, who must continually inject him with this curative medicine to avoid a relapse, as only the yakruna flower can provide a permanent cure. 

As they begin their Odysseus-like journey, the film possesses a near mythical quality as they encounter a series of unfortunate circumstances, deliberately entering Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the making of the film itself recalls the impossible encounters of Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO (1982), or the madness of AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972), continually mixing the future with the past, where the filmmaker literally alters any concept of time, as it’s all part of the same “experience,” where Karamakate informs them “Listen to what the river can tell you.  Every tree, every flower brings wisdom.”  For the shaman, this is also a journey of rediscovery, as his powers have grown rusty from disuse, identifying as a chullachaqui (an empty shell of a human being), allowing himself to be a part of the world again where he once again lives in harmony with all things.  He ridicules the useless pile of suitcases that Theo lugs along at every step, suggesting “they’re just things” weighing them down, throwing them overboard at one point, while Theo claims he is a man of science, where he has to provide evidence of where he’s been or no one back in Germany would believe him, showing him notebooks of drawings he has made, or specimens he has collected along the way, which includes taking Karamakate’s photograph standing proudly as the master of his domain.  This same photograph is used to guide Richard back into the same region decades later, as they retrace the same steps traveled on the earlier journey still in search of the elusive plant.  In a way, the narrative structure resembles Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), where an Indian leads a white man on a protracted journey of awakening just before the hour of his death, retracing their steps as they cross between several spiritual realms leading up to the “final crossing.”  As we see Theo socializing with a group of natives in their own language, where there is plenty of singing and dancing, he demonstrates the advanced power of a compass, which one of the natives takes to immediately, offering a handmade craft for its possession, which angers Theo, as it’s one of his most prized navigational tools, suggesting technology will alter their natural evolution, but Karamakate reminds him that blind ignorance is not some pure romanticized notion, “You cannot forbid them to learn. Knowledge belongs to all men.”

While there are many horrors seen along the way, perhaps the worst are the crimes perpetrated by the rubber industry, as they come across a grove of bleeding rubber trees, a reflection of the white presence in the Amazon, where Maduca angrily spills all the cups collecting the white sticky liquid released from gashes in the trunks of the trees, fuming over the Effects on indigenous population where the rubber barons viciously rounded up the local Indians by force, placed them in chains, killed them on the spot or cut off the arms of those that disobeyed, while ordering them to tap rubber out of the trees, where on one plantation alone that began with 50,000 Indians, only 8,000 remained after the harvest.  In some areas 90% of the Indian population was wiped out.  A distraught one-armed man they encounter is beside himself in grief at what they’ve done, knowing he will be held responsible, asking them to kill him right there on the spot, as he will surely not live to see another day.  Further down river they run into a deranged Spanish priest running a Catholic mission filled with orphaned native children who lost their parents to the rubber plantations, all dressed in white robes, where they are forbidden to speak in their native, or “pagan” language, including ancestral fables and stories, as any cultural reminders of where they came from is subject to brutal punishment, where the absurdity of the situation is so dire that the priest prefers to inflict the wrath of a public whipping even as the Colombian army approaches on a rampage through the countryside where in all likelihood they will eventually be slaughtered.  Besides a need to unburden themselves of material possessions, to explore the mystery of existence through consciousness alone, Karamakate reminds both scientists that they carry psychological baggage and cannot be cured of their illness because the white man has forgotten how to dream.  In spite of the sinister undercurrent, there’s a meditative quality to Guerra’s direction that culminates in a transformative final scene that transcends into a near-religious mystical experience, where the only way to heal is by learning how to dream, all emerging from their journeys as different men, as they are finally allowed to “experience” what they came in search of, literally exploding out of the subconscious like the final scenes of Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV (1966), becoming a montage of brilliant, swirling colors, a hallucinogenic, dream-like vision revealing the magnificence of the cosmos, complete with animal gods and heavenly constellations, where the universe exists in all its abstract manifestations, pushing the boundaries of what is real and imagined, offering a poignant closing dedication to those “peoples whose song we will never know.” 

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