There have been many novels written about explorers and scientists seeking out indigenous people and their lore in remote terrain. Ann Patchett’s 2011 “State Of Wonder” and Lily King’s 2014 ” Euphoria” are examples. Now, we have a Conradian “Heart Of Darkness” film where themes of loss, exploitation and insanity mess with beauty, dream reality and ancient knowledge.
A best Foreign Film nominee, Ciro Guerra’s ” Embrace Of The Serpent” , will jar your Western thought patterns. “If we can’t get whites to learn, it will be the end of everything” may be the film’s premise.The meeting of Karamakate ( Nilbio Torres & Antonio Bolivar) the speaker and the last survivor of his Amazonian tribe, is structured over a forty-year time span. The screenwriters ( Ciro Guerra’s & Jacques Toulemonde ) have based their script around actual journal and diary entries much like the “The Witch” ( reviewed March 3 , 2016). As an aside, one wonders if in the near future researchers will only have Facebook postings to inspire.
The journals and drawings begin in 1909 with with the German ethnographer Theodor Koch- Grunberg and end in 1940 with his Bostonian -American follower, Richard Evans Shultes. Both white men are seeking the sacred yakruna plant as much as they are documenting the tribes of the Columbian Amazon. They appreciate and betray in equal fashion. Karamakate is the only hero, lonely and transcendent, angry and nurturing, ultimately life-giving. When he speaks, we listen: ” You devour everything; you bring hell and death to earth.” Rubber barons and missionaries are given their harsh due. Much is difficult to watch. The scene where the insane, drug besotted priest screams:” The Messiah is not taking visitors” will show you madness to remember. Karamakate and researcher agree they see the worst of both worlds, now.
There are few moments of pure joy: music and laughter and solitude with nature ~ swarms of butterflies being filmed by award winning cinematopher David Gallego. The film’s soundtrack by Nascuy Linares also has won accolades. It is original and incorporates the sounds of the jungle and its waterways beautifully. The final spell of hallucinogenic other-worldliness does not seem needed. Twenty-four awards for “Embrace Of The Serpent” seem to tell us that “wise men will come to learn.” Thematically dense and old-new-age powerful. I did not feel that anyone was ” blowing smoke up my nose” , but only that an important story of another’s reality was being told.