As he prepared to journey into the jungle to shoot Fitzcarraldo in the early 80s, Werner Herzog claims to have been approached by a Catholic priest; a pragmatic man of the cloth, who urged the director to include a number of prostitutes as part of the movie’s production team. His reasoning, said Herzog, was that it would save the crew from insanity whilst they were isolated within the wilderness.
We as a species have always been innately fearful of the great unknown, which is perhaps why so many tales of Amazonian expeditions – from Herzog’s Aguirre to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, both of which are comparable touchstones to this film – culminate in an inevitable descent into madness. Even here, a late stop off in a secluded Catholic Mission reveals a Kurtzian odyssey overseen by a delusional figure who considers himself the Messiah.
Both on the screen and in real life, man is so often unwilling to simply stop and appreciate the mystery and majesty of what surrounds them. Yet from the opening frame of his latest picture, it’s clear that Ciro Guerra is determined to immerse not only himself and his characters, but also his audience in the wonder of the wilds.
Befitting of its title, Embrace of the Serpent is a film that envelops you in its enigmatic coils – its hold on you growing tighter and tighter, as you’re drawn deeper into this untamed world of shaman and spirits. The narrative is ostensibly a work of fiction, but it has been drawn from the existing testimonies of German scientist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) and American botanist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis); two men who travelled deep into the Columbian Amazon – Theodor in 1909 & Evans in 1940 – searching for the yakruna, a rare plant that they believed to hold sacred healing powers.Switching between the two explorer’s respective treks, Guerra’s dense script – collaborated on with Jacques Toulemonde Vidal – tells the story through their eyes, but our focus throughout is on their guide, Karamakate; the last survivor of his tribe, played with cagey and conflicted ferocity as a young man by Nilbio Torres, and with quiet discipline in later life by Antonio Bolivar.
Karamakate may lead an existence of tragic solitude, but throughout his life he’s been determined to always uphold the traditions of his people. Sadly though, even in this most insulated of environments, the world around him is one that’s constantly shifting. Through the markings of the rubber plantations we see permanently etched onto the trees, we see the stains of a dominant society that’s blithely willing to try and drain the planet of its natural resources for their own commercial gain – a topic of conversation that’s as timely now as it ever was.
Guerra considers this issue with care, his soulful direction capturing such sad truths with a mournful silence that echoes in your mind. What’s striking though, is that while time passes around him, Karamakate refuses to change; like the jungle itself, he is an ethereal entity that cannot be controlled. And rightly, Guerra encourages his viewer to ruminate on this with a great awe and respect that, through the virtue and understanding of its surroundings, his film also commands.