A stunning Homeric, colonial Drama with more than just a dash of the fantastical. Embrace of the Serpent is more than you’re average Foreign Film Academy nominee.
Missing out on this intriguing movie on its limited UK release, I jumped at the opportunity to take a peek when it came on to disc. Although I’d heard that the Black and White jungle visuals and atmospheric sounds were best experienced in theatres, I felt that my TV and speakers were more than up to the task.
Embrace of the Serpent garnered critical acclaim upon its release for its sensitive approach to a rich tapestry of themes. Indeed, those looking for subtext to pull at here will not be disappointed. Everything from PTSD to Environmental issues gets explored, with plenty of time for tangential explorations of religion and issues of Colonialism.
On to the narrative, easily one of the best things this film has going for it. Unlike some other Foreign Language Cannes winners, Embrace keeps its dual narrative tight and well defined. Setting the action around Karamakate, the lone survivor of a Tribe decimated by Rubber Barons – the film is divided between two quests with the same goal, but set decades apart.
In 1909, a young Karamakate reluctantly aids a sickly German scientist to find the legendary Ykruna plant in order to save his life. Over thirty years later, an American on a similar journey enlists an older Karamakate’s help. The two narratives are cunningly intertwined, with attention paid to the causality inherent in introducing a foreign element to native tribes.
Performances from the small cast are uniformly good. Unlike its outward appearance, Embrace has more than a few moments of levity. Both the young and old Karamakate are allowed the chance to laugh, and the foreign men of science who use him always appear than more than just the ‘white-devil’ cardboard cut-outs that you’d expect.
Although Ciro Guerra shoots in Black and White, the moral grey area that he explores with his characters defy expectations. Although the various tribes we meet have clearly been negatively impacted by their foreign invaders, they never come across as the naive Adams that we’re led to believe they were.
In many ways, Embrace is an incredibly human film. Looking past its gorgeous cinematography and rich subtext, Ciro Guerra and his co-writer’s real achievement here is the scope of human existence that they capture. Whether living as a pack, as brothers or simply alone – their characters are always driven by a singular goal which drives the meditative narrative ever forward.