Embrace of the Serpent– Cannes Film Festival
German-in-the-Amazon Madness Proves Popular At Cannes
Tales of Amazon exploration have always been exciting, and the surprise success of an Amazon-inspired film at the Cannes Film Festival this year is further evidence that the allure of the magic and mystery of the Amazon and its inhabitants shows no sign of waning. Screened in the Directors' Fortnight section, acclaimed Colombian film-maker Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) proved a real hit with critics.
Featuring stunning black-and-white cinematography shot in an array of breathtaking rainforest locations, Embrace of the Serpent is a winding spiritual and ethnographic journey into the heart of the Amazon, exploring the relationship between man, nature and the destructive powers of colonialism.
The story was inspired by the journals of two explorers, the German Theodor Koch-Grünberg (above-left), portrayed by the character Theodor in the film, and the American Richard Evans Schultes (above-right), referred to as Evan in the film, who traveled through the Colombian Amazon during the last century.
Shamanism and Duality
Cutting between 1909 and the 1940s, the parallel narratives chart each man’s voyage down a similar stretch of river as they search for a rare flower, the yakruna, with alleged healing powers. On both journeys they are guided by the same forlorn native shaman, Karamakate – the surviving member of a tribe that was wiped out by years of brutal foreign invasions.
Filled with regret over the loss of his people and unable to fully trust the men he agrees to accompany downriver, Karamakate ultimately proves an invaluable resource to the explorers, both of whom are curious about his culture and willing to go along for the ride without knowing where they’re headed. Theodor, who’s suffering from a fatal illness, is especially dependent on the shaman’s powers, taking doses of traditional plant-based medicine in order to stay alive.
Following the dual voyages as they duel further into the heart of Amazonian darkness, Guerra uses pristine widescreen imagery to underline the beauty of a place that’s slowly and sadly headed toward oblivion. For every magnificent stretch of forest and river, there are telling signs of destruction, such as a rubber plantation where a mutilated worker begs to be put out of his misery, or a Catholic mission that over the years becomes a decadent fiefdom ruled by a religious quack.
Along with the memorable set-pieces, atmospheric sound effects makes the jungle truly come alive, and as the two travelers reach their respective destinations they gradually merge into their lush surroundings. Only the music of Haydn’s The Creation – played on a portable phonograph in what seems like a nod to Werner Herzog’s original Amazon-based film success Fitzcarraldo – is there to remind us of lasting European influences, although even Karamakate can appreciate its hold over Evan’s psyche.
Embracing the Amazon
Embrace of the Serpent is an absorbing account of indigenous tribes facing up to colonial incursions, revealing how modern society and western civilizations are in many ways far behind the native peoples they conquer.
Why not explore the Amazon for yourself and embrace the magic of the rainforest on your own adventure of discovery?