The Embrace of the Serpent: a film condemning European colonialism and its effects also carrying a message of reconciliation and hope

Ciro Guerra, “The Embrace of the Serpent / El Abrazo de la Serpiente” (2015)

Filmed on location in the Amazon rainforest region, this remarkable film features two parallel stories that involve the shaman Karamakate set 30 years apart. In the earlier story, German explorer / ethnographer Theo Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), accompanied by man-servant Manduca (Yauenku Migue), is ailing from a severe illness and needs treatment and a cure; he is brought to the young Karamakate (Niblio Torres) who initially declines to help as he distrusts Europeans for having destroyed his people and their culture. After Theo tells the shaman that he has seen some of his people and can take him to them, K agrees to go with him and Manduca and lead them to the yakruna plant that will apparently cure Theo. Theo promises to abide by various prohibitions that the shaman places on him. The threesome endure a testy relationship while sailing on the Amazon due to K’s distrust of Manduca for abandoning his culture for that of European ways and of Theo for being white. Manduca loyally defends Theo who bought his freedom from a rubber plantation owner. On their journey, the trio encounter a mission run by a lone priest for abandoned orphans; the priest has forbidden the children from using their own languages and runs a severe religious Christian regime that includes physical punishment.

Years later, American botanist Richard Evans (Brionne Davis), using an English translation of Theo’s published notes, posted to Germany by Manduca after the German died in the rainforest, comes to the Amazon to find Karamakate. Evans’ real purpose is to find disease-free rubber trees for the US, since the usual Southeast Asian sources of rubber have been overtaken by Japan during the Second World War; but he conceals this from Karamakate, telling the shaman he is interested in finding the plant that healed Theo for its medicinal qualities.

Through both stories the film is a powerful exploration of the extent to which European culture has devastated native Amazon cultures and peoples with the consequent loss of native knowledge and human connections with nature. In both stories, Theo and Richard must learn to divest themselves of material possessions and Western assumptions and patterns of thinking, and to listen to and follow their inner voices, and rediscover their inner lives and worlds through dreaming; only by doing so can they find what they have been truly seeking, which is the nature of reality and finding their true selves and place in the cosmos. Karamakate for his part must also learn what his true purpose is as the lone survivor of his people and the sole repository of all their knowledge and history. Just as the white men must learn that the yakruna plant cannot be abused for profit or grown in ways that abuse its sacred properties, so Karamakate is led on his own spiritual path and release from the emptiness he has felt for allowing his anger at European and mestizo abuse of the yakruna plant to overcome him and cause Theo’s death 30 years earlier. He comes to realise his knowledge isn’t just for his own people but is for the wider world beyond that needs it.

The monochrome look of the film gives it a surreal quality and the exquisite editing enables the narrative to shift back and forwards in time; this allows the film also to track the fortunes of the mission orphans over time. The lone priest who abused the orphans physically is replaced by a crazed self-appointed messiah. In this the film makes a statement about the effect that cultural genocide has had on Amazon peoples and contrasts the religious extremism encouraged by self-styled Christian leaders with the mystical journeys of Theo, Richard and Karamakate. The time shifts also enable viewers to experience time and Karamakate’s own experiences in particular as circular, highlighting the shaman’s own redemption and his frailties as a human.

The climax of the film is filmed in colour and seems a bit flat and disappointing but this is a minor quibble compared with the rest of the film. It is a strong and devastating critique of European colonialism and the capitalist quest to commodify and exploit the natural world for profit, and also shows a way in which all humans can find reconnection with the world of nature and the spirit world. Ultimately this is a film of redemption, reconciliation and hope.

Everybody has a Plan: slow-burn character study burdened by hokey plot twists and themes of identity, choice and responsibility

Ana Piterbarg, “Todos tenemos un Plan / Everybody has a Plan” (2012)

Ah, don’t we love films about identical twin brothers turning on themes of identity, choice and responsibility and giving actors a one-in-a-lifetime chance of giving two character studies for the price of one! And certainly Viggo Mortensen does a fine job of portraying two such fellows: one, Agustin, a squeaky-clean paediatrician on call in Buenos Aires, a man who scrupulously obeys the law and does as he’s told; and his identical twin Pedro, the polar opposite in every way – ostensibly a beekeeper but also running a kidnapping / ransoming racket with his childhood buddy Adriano (Daniel Fanego). The film also boasts some beautiful nature scenes from northern Argentina, courtesy of fine cinematography work by Lucio Bonelli, and promises an investigation into the nature of identity, the choices people make in life, reinventing oneself and accepting responsibility for those choices. What’s not to like?

Agustin lives a comfortable and secure life as a paediatrician with his wife Claudia (Soledad Villamil) in the Big Smoke but feels something lacking in his existence and yearns to escape his stress-filled life of the demands of administering to middle class parents’ brats and of his own high-maintenance spouse. Initially the couple had thought that children would help to fill the void in their lives and are in the process of adopting a baby but Agustin quickly realises that being childless isn’t the problem and backs out of the adoption process. This creates a rift between him and Claudia, and Agustin falls into a depression. Claudia leaves their apartment and while she’s gone, Pedro visits him. Pedro reveals he is dying of lung cancer and asks Agustin to help kill him. Pedro’s arrival gives Agustin an escape route and in no time at all, Agustin has fled BA and assumed Pedro’s identity and life-style as beekeeper in the Tigre river delta region in north-central Argentina. Life in a relaxed, down-at-heel rural area would seem to be idyllic but unfortunately Pedro’s past actions have unpleasant consequences for Agustin: local people treat him with suspicion and ostracise him, the police harass him and throw him into jail, and Pedro’s partner Adriano turns up to force his co-operation in a kidnap attempt that Pedro had earlier planned.

The film’s premise is ingenious if not executed very smoothly: there are a few loose ends and director Piterbarg would probably prefer that we not ask too many detailed questions about how well Agustin blends into the local Delta culture or that local girl Rosa (Sofia Gala Castaglione) doesn’t seem to notice the personality changes. The film’s rather glacial and cold pace gives audiences plenty of opportunity to ponder the stereotype of the city as a crime-ridden hell-hole of murders, arson and predatory gangs and the country as a paradise of simplicity and honest, decent folk. Everything we had assumed in popular culture about the city / country divide and the kinds of people produced on either side is turned on its head. Agustin is the naive bumpkin and Pedro is up to his neck in murder plots and robbery schemes. As he descends deeper into trouble, Agustin would appear to have opportunities to reconsider his decision to flee his old life but for reasons that have their roots in his and Pedro’s early upbringing, he passes them all up.

Mortensen’s acting is excellent while the support cast ranges from average to good. Fanego’s villain never seems quite convincing and merely comes across as creepy instead of menacing. Villamil is quite good in the few scenes she has and Castaglione is touching as the innocent Rosa caught among three men, all of them old enough to be her father. The countryside plays a significant role as a peaceful, placid setting for the dark activities the men conduct in secret that spread fear throughout the poor community.

The film could have been very good but in its later half falls into hokey plot twists: there’s an unnecessary romance involving Rosa that sat ill with me and that sub-plot comes with a soured aspect of Rosa’s complicated love-life as well; and Agustin finds himself torn between running farther north and resolving the mess that Pedro helped to create and left in a mess. That old Hollywood chestnut of facing your fears and not being a coward rears its ugly head here; there’s also a lesson about being decent, doing good for people and minimising evil actions. Perhaps the film took on too much in its own planning: the plot and even the setting of Buenos Aires / Tigre delta with their urban / rural opposition, the stereotypes and values associated with both sides of that opposition, and how those opposites play out against one another and come to a compromise (or not), might be too much for a 2-hour film to cope with.

The film’s conclusion in which Agustin is taken up-river in a boat is redolent with cultural associations of the river as a metaphor for the passage of time or the legend of King Arthur being taken away to Avalon to be healed of his mortal wounds; not everything has been resolved here and one fears for the future of some characters but at least Agustin has supposedly found some purpose in life and done, uh, some “good” for the community that he has come home to.

The bee-related theme that appears in the film is a metaphor for the notion of humans as essentially fixed in their natures, unable to change easily, and on this metaphor the film’s themes turn.