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Embrace of the Serpent

Directed by Ciro Guerra

Colombia, 2015

HOME, 15 June 2016

Embrace of the Serpent

This extraordinary film is a haunting meditation on colonialism and sin, cosmology and salvation.

A shaman takes an ailing anthropologist to where a fabled plant, called the Yakruna, grows – only it can cure his illness. Some years later a botanist comes to the shaman in search of the same plant, his intentions not entirely sincere.

The quest is convoluted on both occasions. They call on a mission along the way and it is grotesque, yet also apt, to see how Christianity has taken hold. There is a lot of blood and gore in Christian iconography and sacrament (the Crucifixion and the Eucharist, all that eating of the flesh and blood of the wounded Christ), which may have been part of its appeal. It is a monstrous religion, visceral and gruesome. God alone knows what heathens make of it.

There are nods to Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), mainly in the manner of paying off debts, giving credit where credit is due, though in the end Ciro Guerra is his own man.

Gradually, your sense of dread deepens. The native peoples of the Amazon are subject to economic exploitation, missionaries, then ethnographers – always more of the same. The hollowness of western values offers no respite. We are in a world where the loss of occult knowledge, the loss of language and cultural identity, the loss ultimately of a people – for genocide is probable – all of this is in the cards. That is what is at stake.

I could happily watch Embrace of the Serpent again, it is a masterful film.