Friday 15 July 2016

Mystic river: "Embrace of the Serpent"

The last of this year's Oscar nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category to reach these shores, Embrace of the Serpent determines to transport us somewhere - not simply pick us up, spin us around for a couple of hours and then drop us back down in the exact same spot. In this, it goes against the flow of anywhere between 75-90% of modern movies; it's no surprise it's had the transfixing effect it's had on awards committees and audiences alike. The Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra has here found a way to revivify the cinema's beloved yet increasingly careworn quest narrative, running two such narratives, from two very different time periods, in parallel. One unfurls at the turn of the 20th century, dispatching Theodor Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet), a real-life figure presented here as a beardy old goat, up the Amazon in search of a plant known for its life-giving properties. The other plays out around the midpoint of the same century, informed by all the sage and sorry wisdom accrued in the intervening years. Here, Evan (Brionne Davis), a modest botanist and student of his predecessor's writings, sets out to retrace the explorer's footsteps in the company of his now middle-aged guide Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) and to work out how Theo, representative of science and enlightenment, came to perish in these parts.

Some of the tracks the men follow will be familiar to media-literate 21st century audiences. Not for nothing were such names as Conrad, Coppola and Herzog dropped in the film's early, breathless write-ups; there is a modicum of swaying National Geographic breasts, and a degree of curious jungle ritual. (Theo repeatedly asks his companions to blow a local form of snuff directly into his nostrils, a process that looks roughly as dignified as having it blown up one's rectum.) What is new is the perspective Guerra adopts. Crucially, Embrace of the Serpent starts not within such a flexible concept as "civilisation", but deep within the jungle, with one tribesman peering out from the banks of the river - thus making the white man Theo the Other whose motives are suspect. Though the explorer literally loses his compass at an early juncture, he shapes up as a comparatively harmless figure - a well-intentioned, somewhat sentimental blusterer - especially when set against those we encounter the further he drifts down river: primarily the rubber magnates, an absent presence whose deleterious effect on the locals is illustrated by the emergence of one sorry worker bee, who's lost an eye and an arm in the extraction process and begs his visitors to put him out of his misery; but also the missionaries, busy imposing a language and a punitive worldview upon a populace they deem and demean as cannibals. 

For his part, the botanist Evan is playing catch-up - as indeed we all are, historically speaking - visibly humbled by his task, his surrounds and the eddies of madness he keeps sailing into: one port of call sees him confronted by a Kurtz-like white saviour who's appointed himself King and taken a child bride for his troubles, a sequence that eventually shades into zombie-like horror. Guerra's jungle really is massive - it spans the ages - and we sense how it would take a century or more to transform it into Shoreditch High Street, or just to flush the toxic legacies of colonialism from its system. The director filmed all this in situ, with many of the region's tribesmen enacting scenes from their own history, everybody pushing onwards through torrid rivers and tangled clearings in much the same way Herzog's crew did in making Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Embrace nevertheless emerges as a more mellow and forgiving inquiry than those reference points (and the comparison to Heart of Darkness) would suggest. The natural beauty of these sites is only accentuated by David Gallego's silvery monochrome photography, and you can't fail to notice how the hostile relationship between Theo and the young Karamakate softens into the amused tolerance the older guide displays around the open-minded Evan.

What's crucial is that it is a dialogue: fractious, wry, mocking, Guerra striving at every bend of the river to ensure that his indigenous characters are a good deal more than the mute savages history (and a whole history of North American movies) would damn them as, and that his white men are more complex and complicated than the usual bringers of light and wisdom. (Indeed, at various points, Theo and Evan appear the more helpless and lost of the two tribes. At this point in the annus horribilis that is 2016, who can say that's not the more truthful depiction?) Guerra arrives in this part of the world looking not for barbarism, rather poetry, which is why - amid the wealth of incident that adorns this route - you begin to spot the director making subtle rhymes between his time schemes, putting down the machete to pick up a pen: the butterflies pinned down in Theo's display case suddenly liberated around the older Karamakate's shoulders; the trees that, almost fifty years on, still bear the scars of rubber extraction; Theo's Box Brownie camera paired with Evan's far more portable Olympus.

The spectral light Guerra and Gallego capture is, we realise, another way of squaring this digitally projected, very 21st century film with the photographs we've all seen of the jungle, taken by explorers and scientists keen to position the locals as oddities, trophies or holdouts. By contrast, Embrace of the Serpent floats the thesis that if we go out into the world with the right inquiring yet respectful spirit, we might just return with an expanded consciousness, refined perceptions of ourselves, others and nature: you sense the progress it's working towards when, having spent the best part of the film worried about what exactly these white men are going to impose upon the natives, the final movement finds those same natives wondering aloud how best to get their own stories out to the wider world of white men. That Guerra's film, an essential part of that process, somehow registered with the Academy's palefaces is its own testament to the film's achievements, but then again this isn't a radical break from storytelling tradition so much as an informed continuation of what's gone before: an adventure movie - never more than a league or so away from the next pocket of peril, danger or wonder - albeit one working off an altogether sharper drawn and more richly detailed map.

Embrace of the Serpent is now playing in selected cinemas, and is also available to view on demand.

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