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Chalk It Up: Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

This is a guest post from Zoë Saunders. Previously…

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embrace of the serpent chalk poster drawing

Embrace of the Serpent was nominated for Best Foreign Picture at the Oscars this year, and maybe it should’ve won… well I didn’t see many of the contenders, so I guess I shouldn’t try to compare, but I will say this: more than a week later I’m still haunted by this one.

The film follows the indigenous shaman Karamakate on two separate trips up the Amazon, first accompanying a German ethnographer and then an American botanist fifty years later. Both white men are searching for the same rare hallucinogenic plant, and Karamakate agrees to tag along, less because of any desire to help these suspicious foreigners but because of his own curiosity and the opportunities for self-discovery along the way. The narrative cuts back and forth between these two parallel story lines to reveal the rapid environmental, cultural, and spiritual degradation wrought by colonialism. Local people are enslaved and tortured by greedy rubber barons, and their belief systems have been subverted and repressed by zealous missionaries. Karamakate is one of the sole survivors of his tribe, and by the second voyage he has grown old and forgotten many of his own traditions.

At times, Embrace of the Serpent is reminiscent of Herzog’s Amazonian tales (Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre the Wrath of God) as well as Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now, but with the marked difference that director Ciro Guerra puts an indigenous protagonists at the center of his film. Karamakate is no noble savage, but rather a fully realized and complex character through whom we view the effects of colonialism over his lifetime. Any fictional representation of indigenous peoples raises a red flag for me, but I was generally impressed by Guerra’s respectful treatment of Amazonian cultures. I was pleased to read in an interview with Screenprism that he made a conscious effort to consult local communities and respect their traditions, even getting a shaman to perform a ceremony to ask the jungle’s permission and protection during the shoot.

The movie is shot in black and white 35mm, denying us the stereotypical lush greenery I would’ve expected and creating an unfamiliar perspective, as well as hearkening back to 19th-century ethnographic photography. (As you can see, I couldn’t quite resist the jungle greens in my own drawing…) There are a couple of wildlife shots that look like lower quality video, which I thought disrupted the film’s stylistic unity, and then at the end there’s a big stylistic shift I wasn’t crazy about, but I don’t want to spoil anything so will refrain from commenting any further. The film opens in June, so check it out then!