Embrace of the Serpent

Dir Ciro Guerra

A mesmerising and beautiful film that takes you to a different place from most – geographically and cognitively. The black and white photography puzzled me at first – why wouldn’t you use colour for the Colombian jungle? All those greens! But colour might also have distracted you from the film’s mood; moreover black and white echoed the photographs that both white visitors used to illustrate the later accounts of their travels.

The film is seen through the eyes of Karamakate, a shaman (in fact, I think he was never absent until the very end – unless you see the butterflies as his spirit): he is asked, 30-odd years apart, by two white explorers to help him find a plant which can heal, aid dreams and maximise rubber production. (It’s a fictional plant; my unexpanded, analytical European mind is confused by and wary of the mix of published journals and fable – which, I suppose, is one of the points of the film.) The first time he is young and hostile, persuaded to help only by the prospect of finding members of his people whom he thought were wiped out by the rubber barons. The second time he is an old man with a failing memory who has lost contact with his dreams and knowledge.

It’s also a reminder of the horrors that the Europeans inflicted on South America: the wiping out of people, the slavery, the degradation and corruption of survivors, and the environmental destruction – as if it was purely ours to exploit. (Of course, the damage is already done, and I don’t shun rubber tyres for my bicycle . . . nor coltan for my mobile phone, thus updating Heart of Darkness.)

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