Saturday, March 5, 2016

Ciro Guerra's new film "Embrace of the Serpent" at SIFF Cinema: Mar 11 - 24

While not a historic biopicture, Ciro Guerra's "Embrace of the Serpent" stands as a capaciously researched work of Colonial fiction richly drawing from the accounts of ethnologist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the American botanist Richard Evans Schultes. The latter widely considered the father of modern ethnobotany for his global studies of indigenous peoples' ritualistic and medicinal uses of entheogenic plants and fungi. As described in Nicholas Casey's piece for the New York Times, Guerra arrived in the jungle with an anthropologist who aided the conveyance of his project to a local shaman, who in Guerra’s words, carefully “explained the project to the forest.” This project became, "Embrace of the Serpent: Ciro Guerra's Searching Tale about Invaded Cultures in the Amazon". Almost directly referencing the life's experiences and knowledge contained in the pages of Grünberg's "Two Years Among the Indians: Travels in Northwest Brazil", "The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Charles Evans Schultes", Schultes' own book co-authored with chemist Albert Hofmann, "The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers", and for it's larger context, "One River", Wade Davis' account of the explorations of Charles Evans Schultes. Guerra's tale is viewed largely through the aggrieved eyes of a shaman by the name of Karamakate, a Cohiuano spiritual leader living isolated in the jungle, his tribe on the verge of extinction. “Embrace of the Serpent”'s fantastical mixture of myth and historical reality "Where Majesty Meets Monstrosity" adopts Karamakate's non-Western concepts of time and storytelling into it's very structure. The film taking place at two points in the shaman’s life: circa 1907, when he encounters (fictional analogs for Grünberg and Schultes) explorer Theodor von Martius and some 40 years later, when he repeats parts of the earlier journey with Boston-born botanist Evans. Von Martius, the earlier explorer, is severely ill and seeks out Karamakate for his reputation as a healer. While Evans is in search of both the decimated remnants of the Cohiuano and the yakruna, a flowering plant that is central to their sacred rituals. Portrayed by two separate actors, the youthful and senior Karamakate retraces his steps over the distance of decades.

Along the way, the twin parties witness the ravages of Colonialism, specifically the genocide and enslavement of natives perpetuated by Colombian rubber barons in the late-19th and mid-20th Century. The two timelines alternate throughout the film, coinciding with the two great Rubber Booms of the Amazon. The first, from 1879 to 1912, was one of the worst holocausts in South American history with some 50,000 Amazon natives enslaved to harvest rubber, it's result decimating 90% of the Indian population in a wave of appalling brutality. The second, spanning the years of 1942 to 1945 saw the Brazilian government at the behest of the Rubber Development Corporation financed with capital from United States, recruit some 100,000 citizens, mostly non-natives, to harvest rubber for the efforts of the second World War. In this approximately 30,000 people died, though the chief cause of death was not murder, but malaria, yellow fever, and other tropical diseases. In Karamakate’s eyes, the rubber barons who enslaved and destroyed his tribe are marauding agents of an insane European and American culture devoted to genocidal conquest and rapacious destruction. These themes are depicted in two central scenes of madness and cultural devastation at the hands of intruders from the outside world. On von Martius' quest, they encounter a tyrannical Spanish priest presiding over an isolated Roman Catholic Mission, it's flock of boys orphaned by the conflicts between rubber barons and indigenous tribes. Decades later, Karamakate heals the dying wife of a community cult leader and self-proclaimed Son of God. In a delirium inspired by her recovery, he invites his followers to take from him a Eucharist, literally consuming his body and blood. From here, IndieWire's review from Cannes, describe the "Soulful, Strange and Stunning Discovery" the film diverges on as things take a Jodorowskian turn toward mystical higher ground. Enmity expands into awe as the quest for the yakruna leads to the very threshold of the cosmic. But rather than release through revelation, Guerra gives us a damning condemnation of Colonial encroachment, a "Dreamlike Exploration of Imperialist Pollution" seen sidelong through Western man's journey for knowledge in the spiritual landscape of the Amazon.