Hearts, darkness and another two river voyages

Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
(El abrazo de la serpiente)
directed by Ciro Guerra

Jan Bijvoet (as Theo_ with unidentified native actors.

Jan Bijvoet (as Theo) with unidentified native actors.

It seems apparent to me how Ciro Guerra’s latest film, Embrace of the Serpent (2015), not only ended up in the mix for a variety of prizes at the numerous film festivals that now exit (including nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars), but also actually won several. The movie combines a number of ingredients that nominating committees must have on their secret check lists: A young film-maker from outside the “developed” world (Guerra is from Colombia) makes an earnest film about the effects of European and American imperialism on native peoples. He employs a cinematographic trick (it is filmed in black and white) to portray the beauties of the unspoiled (by advanced capitalist enterprises), “natural” world. It purports to sympathetically deal with indigenous peoples (including those that were exterminated) by using untrained, native actors and even native languages. (An inscription at the end says something to the effect that it is dedicated to the songs of peoples we will never get to hear). And it attempts to show the superiority of ancient beliefs of people in close harmony with nature over the degraded, grasping and soulless life of “modern” man who is motivated by an economic system that destroys everything living in both nature and man himself.

If Guerra had only competently executed any one of his major goals this film would have been a good (if not especially original) movie. But instead, he seems content only to check off the boxes on the prize nominators’ clipboard without any originality, deep empathy or even considered thought. What we end up getting is two hours of nature photography (mostly riverscapes) intruded upon by a story that is neither edifying nor believable even given that it is purportedly based on true life events. The “truth” of true life is often in the details, but this film is all surface.

The movie tells the story of two scientists, one German and one American, who, decades apart, engage a shaman (named Karamakate), to travel upstream in the Amazon basis far away from the mouth, in search of a plant with the name of yakruna. (A quick google search suggests that this plant inhabits only Guerra’s cinematographic world). The first scientists, Theo (based on Theodor Koch-Grunberg and played by Jan Bijvoet), needs the plant because it is the only thing that can bring him back from the brink of death. To find it his sidekick Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) drags him to meet the young Karamakate (played by Nilbio Torres), the one man left who knows where to find it, since the rest of his tribe was exterminated by the white man. Karamakate, for this very good reason, hates whites and hates Manduca for collaborating with them (and his whole tribe for not fighting them). (Manduca will much later explain that Theo is not like other whites; as evidence: he paid off the debt on Manduca’s farm.) Nevertheless, despite this emnity and without further inducement, after sulking a bit, Karamakate agrees to take Theo to the yakruna, revives him by blowing up his nose white powder (called the sun’s semen, and whose effects, we are told, are only temporary, although like the ideal American pharmaceuticals, periodic dosages seem to restore him to perfect health), and then makes him agree to abide by a variety of dietary and sexual prohibitions as a condition to saving his life. And so the spiritual quest begins.

Young (though preternaturally wise) Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) at the beginning of the first quest.

Young (though preternaturally wise) Karamakate ( Nilbio Torres) at the beginning of the first quest.

The second scientist, Evan (based on American Richard Evans Schultes and played by Brionne Davis) returns 30 years or so later to find a noticeably older Karamakate (played byAntonio Bolivar), and persuades the shaman that inasmuch as his life is devoted to the study of plants he has a genuinely disinterested reason for wanting to find the yakruma. Evan shows Karamakate that he knew Theo, and Karmakate asks about his fate. He is told that Theo never made it out of the jungle. Although Karamakate this time is reluctant because in his old age he has forgotten all the tradition of his people and even the details of his former quest, he is once again persuaded to embark, this time because Evan is able to show him how to prepare a dish that he has forgotten. The film alternates between the two voyages. In the course of these two river trips we see the physical traces of imperialism (although the inconspicuous pails to catch the drippings of rubber trees and the one Catholic orphanage we see are hardly comparable to the blighted Colombian Amazon now caused by vast logging enterprises mostly by Asian companies), the cultural devastation and the degraded dependency that now enslaves the native people. Contrasted with that is the store of indigenous knowledge maintained by Karamakate, the last of his own people, living alone in the forest, watching silently as canoes go by. Karamakate escaped the devastation of his own people while a child, so where he became the store of this information is not explained and indeed he does not even answer the question put to him of how he survived by himself. Nevertheless, the young Karamakate is an encyclopedia of ethnopharmacology which produces miraculous results. The results probably seemed more miraculous to Theo, who, after all, had come from a time when the Western World had not fully digested the concept of the germ theory of diseases. But even three decades later Evan sees him effect a cure that mid-century Western hospitals were unable to handle. (Kamramakate’s memory of the knowledge of is people is restored solely by undertaking this trip with the white man.) Karamakate is less successful in explaining the traditional cosmology and world view of his people, only occasionally giving name or identification to various mystical concepts such as chullachaqui, a person’s soulless doppelgänger, the anaconda coming from the Milky Way, which appears to be some aspect of the creation story, and dreams of the eye of a jaguar, which goes wholly unexplained. Guerra makes no attempt to show the “truth,” beauty or importance of this world-view, even though he expresssly tells us at the end that we should mourn their passing. The other native peoples we see are either infantilized or depicted as degraded by the white man’s religious or military imperialism.

Guerra cannot help himself from burdening Karamakate’s character, already a tough sale with his existential courage and repository of the wisdom of the ages, with some knowing winks. In his first encounter with Evan, Karamakate protests that the northerners have already taken the coca plant from the natives, now they waqnt yakruma too! Such an obvious irony seems unnecessary from a Colombian. The second instance is more troubling because it renders Karamakate’s character so trite. After the shaman persuades Evan to shed himself from the possessions that bind him, Karamakate tells him that instead of eing the store of knowledge for his people, it seems he was destined to be the receptacle of information for Evan. With one unnecessary line Guerra turns Karamakate into a stereotypical native in a Hollywood movie whose role in life is to fulfill the white man’s dreams.

One really tries to resist the urge to conclude that Guerra’s handling of the indigenous people is patronizing. After all, one can persuade oneself, the effects of Western imperialism is to reduce these people to a shell of their former glory, and Guerra is simply showing them in their debased condition. But during the two hours it becomes too much to continue the pretense. That Guerra is Colombian gives him no especial sympathy with the indigenous people of the Amazon. In fact, ethnically and culturally, he is in the same positon as an American film director telling the stories of North American natives or a British director doing the same for Africans encountering European imperialism. Instead of showing us why these cultures should be preserved, or even anything about them, we are served with the usual substitute: the noble savage, exhibited soley in the character of Karamakate. And to prove that nobility Guerra resorts to the usual clichés: self-denying efforts to help the “good” white man, stoicism in the face of danger, knowledge of herbal medicines more potent that all of Western biological science (and apparently within easy reach whenever Karamakate needs them), and, of course, wisdom of the ages.

The unsullied goodness and wisdom of Karamakate, who is the ultimate Rousseau example of man before the impure effects of government, is pushed beyond belief on at least two occasions. In one, Karamakate sees the effect of Christianity on the indigenous people, at first during the earlier voyage when he witnesses a sadistic Catholic brother instilling the love of Christ by banning all native influences (including language) and then viciously whipping an unrepentant as others watch. Although Karamakate is unable to rescue the boys (the yakruna questers don’t have enough food for them all), he is able to show them some of the old knowledge, including the sun’s semen. When he returns 30 years later with Evan, he finds the place run by a madman, who acts like Caligula and proclaims himself the Messiah, and his native adherents degraded beyond saving. He tells Evans, in a bit of dialogue that may have seemed less trite in his native language, that the disciples had combined “the worst of both worlds” (although I am quite sure that the film-maker did not mean to suggest that there was anything “bad” about the untouched aboriginal peoples). He solves the problem tout suite in a way that only a shaman could get away with in a movie by a Western film-maker. The second is a scene where Karamakate persuades Evan to ditch nearly all of his baggage (notes, scientific equipment, books, etc.) to free himself for his spiritual journey. But Even keeps one box. It turns out to be hand cranked phonograph. They stare into the night sky listening to German romantic music, and Karamakate tells Evan that this represents the dream of his ancestors, something that he must pursue. (I could not help wondering, given the solemnity of the scene, whether Karamakate would have felt the same way if Evan had brought a disk of Fletcher Henderson.)

Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) and Evan (Brionne Davis) reach the destination of their spirit quest.

Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) and Evan (Brionne Davis) reach the destination of their spirit quest.

The sermon on imperialism is, if anything, even less trenchant. There is, of course, no debate in fact that European and American imperialism has had baleful effects throughout the world. It has corrupted cultural and economic systems, it has stirred up tribal, religious, economic hostilities that did not exist before. It has stripped the lands, rivers and seas and inflicted death on countless peoples. And it may ultimately prove all of our undoing because like one riding the back of a tiger, we who have unleashed unrestrained industrial capitalism are unable to get off without serious injury or death.  Its operation and effects are pervasive but also subtle. Movies are crude tools for exploring those subjects, even if Guerra had an informed view of how it worked in this particular case and why it was bad. But he does not appear to have a clear idea of why either is so, or at least he is not interested in sharing those view with us. In his defense it might be argued that Guerra was not attempting to show how imperialism worked but only its effects. But simply showing groups of degraded and hopeless natives does not show the effects of capitalism/imperialism, any more than showing fish washed up on a beach shows the “effects” of pollution. A film, for example, that shows us nothing but homeless people living on the street or under a bridge tells us nothing useful about how they got there, no matter how pious the narration; in fact, it risks reinforcing the view that “those people” live that way owing to their own lack of moral, intellectual or other character traits. With only the shaman as the “before” to the degraded peoples’ “after,” such a conclusion is almost the logical conclusion of the film.

All of this might be passed over, or attributed to the petulant criticisms of an exceptionally critical viewer. Except that there is one final indignity. Without revealing what turns out to be a plot twist at the end (although not especially shocking, and in some respects simply another added cliché), let me just say that the movie turns out to be, in part, another spirit quest resolved by hallucinogens. Although we know that the shaman throughout is prescribing dream therapy for his white charges, we probably were entitled to expect more than simply a shaman-recommended chemical trip. Even the imperialistic countries which prescribe chemicals for every physical imbalance their citizens complain of also have talk-therapy and such things as philosophy and cosmology for other needs. In the end, one feels that the film was an unhappy amalgam of FitzcarraldoApocalypse NowLittle Big Man and like films plus Hunter Thompson, not completely considered or happily mixed.

Although ultimately disappointing, the film has attractions. The black and white cinematography of David Gallego is first rate. It is most successful for capturing the “feel” of early 20th century ethnographic expeditions. (Of course they saw in color just as we do, but our photographic representations of them are in monochrome, so that’s how we will always experience them “authentically.”) Some images, such as the canoe on the roiling Amazon are very intriguing. But when it comes to the many vistas showing the vast expanse of the Amazon forests, the scenes are diminished because they lack the suffocating omnipresence of green in all its tints and shades. There are also obligatory shots of a couple of snakes and one jaguar, which have no plot functions and their symbolic role is far from clear. The sound and editing are also competently handled. The acting, especially given that many of the roles are performed by local amateurs, is quite good, even considering the parts of the two scientists are stilted. Nilbio Torres nobly performs the ignobly conceived role of the noble savage, made especially difficult here because the motivations of his sudden contradictory decisions are never explained. (Surely Guerra does not believe that savages only act impulsively, does he?) One serious problem, however, and one that is often encountered in foreign language films, is especially problematic here: the subtitles. Since the film uses half a dozen European languages and numerous indigenous ones, it can’t be expected that many people (including probably the director) could understand it all, and therefore subtitles in this film are particularly necessary. And even though the film is in black and white, the subtitles are entirely white (without contrasting border on the lettering which would have solved the problem) so that large amounts of the text are invisible against white backgrounds. Given that the dialogue is so clichéd, it is not a fatal mistake, although one spends far too much effort in frustrated attempts to put together the fragments one can read.

I understand that films are incapable of employing the same literary techniques as prose (such as critical analysis, extended argumentation, nuanced narrative voice, etc.), and I certainly appreciate that movies have other strengths, notably visual and aural devices. Furthermore, even historical films are not required to be historically “accurate” in minute degree. But it seems ot me that films that advertise that they are based on “true events” ought ot take some care in verisimilitude beyond mere visual. And if one wants to tackle “big issues” like imperial oppression of people, one owes his audience more than warmed over approaches. Or at least the alternatives should be considered and discarded for good reason. Otherwise all that the project accomplishes is a visually attractive work which leaves the audience smug in its conclusion that it had the answers all the time.

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