Review: Embrace of the Serpent (PIAF)

– by David Morgan-Brown

embrace of the serpent posterAs the threatening title may suggest, Embrace of the Serpent is a film that looks at the volatile relationship between man and nature, specifically comparing the differences between a city-bred man exploring the dense forest for academic purposes and the tribesmen who have lived their whole lives in these areas. This film looks at the psychological effect the forest has on the natives and the intruders, such as the relenting of material goods and the practise of cultural imperialism.

The film is made up of two stories that interweave every now and again – in 1909 a shaman who is the last of his tribe, Karamakate, leads a sick German scientist, Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), to discover a rare scared plant, and in 1940s an older Karamakate then must help American scientist, Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), find the same plant. These two scientists are very much based on real people, with their own diaries of their Amazonian exploration used for the basis of this film.

I suppose to mirror the production of this film itself, Embrace of the Serpent firmly takes a Western stance with this tribal setting, showing the two similar journeys of these comfortable city-men and the challenges they face, especially in regards to the seemingly unorthodox and spiritual customs that Karamakate enforces. These two storylines follow very similar paths (of course), though they often arrive at slightly different conclusions. The barrage of thematic content, also involving the preciousness of the natural resources, is all well intended but keeps the film out of focus instead of having each scene hone in on a more manageable amount of subject matters, giving this film a less cohesive and more episodic structure.

This variety of culture clash themes are spread out in this amiably plotted duel narrative. Enough time is spent with either Theodor or Richard before moving to the other, in one case a relatively long and graceful tracking shot over the river combines these two timelines into a single shot – Theo Angelopoulos would’ve been impressed. What would be beautiful and naturally lush forests that make up the setting of this film are made intimidating and even unnatural through the use of black and white, a suitable technique to keep this film away from gloating cinematographically, making this the anti-Revenant. This film certainly shows the hostility surrounding this natural world being eroded by constant outside influences.

By the time the film gets to its trippy conclusion, it feels like there’s been quite a trek, though for what ultimate end exactly is hard to decipher. Embrace of the Serpent still offers up plenty of food for thought, even if it’s all a bit scattered amongst this impressive and mindful film.

Embrace of the Serpent will be playing at the Somerville Auditorium from 21-27 March 7:30pm. Buy your tickets here


Image credit: GStatic, Vice

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