Monday, March 21, 2016

Movie Monday: Embrace of the Serpent

Last month this film won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film.  Of the other four finalists two were set in Europe, one in Jordan and one (by a French team) in Turkey.

It was the first Colombian-made film even to be nominated, and its audience to date seems to have consisted mostly of Latin Americans and people attending film festivals.   Online reports said that ticket sales before the Academy Award announcement were about $1.2 million in Colombia and another $100,000 or so in Mexico, Uruguay and Spain.

"Embrace of the Serpent" now is being shown at art houses in the U.S., and I saw it last week in crowded but small theater.  It also seems to be available on YouTube, and so may reach a broad audience over time.

The Environment

Essentially, Embrace is a meditation on the extinction of the Cohiuano, an invented one of the hundreds of small native groups who live, or used to live, in settlements along the Amazon River. These isolated groups had symbolic images but no formal written languages or political organizations or metal machinery.   Their survival relied on deep knowledge of and connections to their environment -- from astral navigation to land and sea animals to the uses of plants -- that had been developed over many generations.

During the early part of the last century, and then again during World War II, white people went into the wilderness to collect the sap of rubber trees for the manufacture of inflated tires for bicycles, then cars and, during World War II, military vehicles.

During these incursions, natives were treated as forced labor to harvest rubber, were punished harshly and were paid in food but nothing else that might have been of use to them.  The natives were scorned as primitives, and their lives were upended by a quest for profit that made no sense to people whose daily reality did not involve money or commerce.

The Story

The main character in the film, Karamakata, is the last of the Cohiuano.  He is played by two Amazon natives, one a young man and the other much older.   Each meets a different Western researcher studying Amazon tribal beliefs, customs and botany.  The second scientist comes bearing research that the earlier scientist had published before dying and so establishes a connection with the older Karamakata.  The last Cohiuano takes both anthropologists/scientists on river journeys, one in 1909 and the other apparently in the 1940s, into the jungle in search of a particular rare plant, the yakruna.

The movie shifts back and forth between the first and second treks.  It documents damage caused by whites -- the researchers' role in the movie is to bear witness -- and establishes the other-ness of the world views held by the Amazonians whom the researchers encounter.


"Embrace of the Serpent" was shot in the Amazon and on black and white film, perhaps to suggest the early 20th century period when both the researchers' journeys took place.  (Or it may have had to do with the light and in the Amazon region; I'm speculating here.)

The director, Ciro Guerra,  went to some lengths to involve natives, to understand their ancient traditions and views and to represent them in the movie.  In an interview, he said this:

         Amazonian people just see it so differently. We think of the past as something that’s
        behind us and the future in front of us, but for many Amazonian people, it’s the opposite.
        The past is in front of you because the past is what you can see and what you can know.
        You walk towards it, because the future is something that is unknown and you don’t
        know if a trap is waiting for you, or what’s going to happen next. So for them the past
        is something that guides you and the future is something that you need to be aware of.

There are many elements of native culture -- myths, dreams, medicinal and hallucinogenic plants, and symbols of panthers and poisonous snakes.

As a Movie

"Embrace of the Serpent" is a pretty good movie.  It tries but does not -- probably cannot -- tie its themes up as neatly as most movies do.  Its action consists largely of the discovery of evidence of previous actions and explications of mysterious and intricate belief systems.  There are mostly unseen white demons, and subthemes that feel forced and frankly ahistorical, especially toward the end. These aspects, and the length of the piece, over two hours, render the film less than fully satisfying.

(This business about movies running long is a general trend these days.  I have the impression sometimes that directors fall in love with the footage they have shot and are unwilling to make the kind of careful edits that could improve the pacing of their narratives.)

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