A Review of Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
by James Kislingbury
At this point Aguirre: The Wrath of God is probably hard baked into my soul. Like a lot of movies that I watched at a certain time and like a lot of other movies that I watched when I thought I was writing real important screenplays, it's always there.So, any time you say that there's a foreign language film about Amazonian madness, I'm there. It's that memory that pointed me towards Embrace of the Serpent. That and the knowledge that I hadn't seen a real art house movie in the theaters since. . . God only knows. I needed to see something weird. I needed to see something that reminded me of how I felt about Aguirre, even if it was superficial reasons.
As far as metaphysically harrowing and art house films go, Embrace of the Serpent is exactly what I needed.
Beyond how it looks, its cadence is odd. Its structure, while split like a lot of Western film, it doesn't feel a though its splitting up these stories according to traditional editing rules. It splits its time between a story in 1909 and sometime in the 1940s,with each story sharing setting and the shaman Karamakate. Instead of moving back and forth at a rapid pace, its a film that is willing to let long strings of scenes play out their course until we are brought back to the past (or forward into the future. . . which is also the past) and the cycle begins again.
I dare say, it feels like a South American film. Whatever that might mean. It reminds me of taking my Latin film class in college. Or at least it reminds me of what I remember of that class. Of how I was told that not everyone tells films like Hollywood wants them to be told.
Most of the film is from the perspective of South America's indigenous people. While I'm no expert on that subject (nor do I have the energy to pretend to be), it's interesting to see a movie that emphasizes the South Americans over the Spanish or the Portugese or any other European.That means something. That alone might be why it feels so unusual to me. Yeah, there are two white people and, yeah, they are our ticket into this world, but they're, well, assholes. They're interlopers from the outset and the only concrete takeaway from this movie is that white people, when given the opportunity, will always make things worse. It's a movie about a people that need to be educated and, for once, that group of people isn't the natives.
I don't know. Sorry. It's a movie that seems unadorned in any meaningful way. It isn't precious or showy and yet there is clearly something deeper beneath this film. It's trying to tell a story that reflects its geography and its own history rather than the history of film or the history of, well, Western colonialism. In that way my comparison (and anyone's comparison) with Aguirre is idiotic. It isn't a movie that uses the Amazon as a setting, it's a movie that is about the Amazon by people from South America.
Or maybe, without overextending myself, it feels like a film by Ciro Guerra.
At a length of 125 minutes, Embrace of the Serpent certainly takes its time. I can't say that I wasn't wondering when it was coming to and end. I suppose part of that is down to the fact that it didn't seem to be leading to any sort of traditional climax. It was about a mystic teaching two sick men how to see the world, which isn't exactly your normal heroes journey. That's part of the appeal of the film, though. It takes its time and, while you might be confused or antsy, the film doesn't ever seem to lose its way. In those moments, it still manages to be fascinating. It still manages to fill those still moments with meaning and dread.
It sometimes feels good to break away from traditionally structured films. As much fun as Deadpool might be or as well made as The Witch is supposed to be or as reliable as the Coen Brothers might be with Hail, Caesar, movies like The Embrace of the Serpent have their place, as well. It isn't so much odd as it is unique. It's a film that has a specific purpose and perspective. It's the kind of film that makes people fall in love with film. It's an affecting, insane journey that's better than any other "psychadelic" film that I've seen in a long time. It's beautiful, terrifying, well thought out, and has a half hour jag into an insane Amazonian cargo cult. What the hell else do you show up to movies for?
James Kislingbury is a writer. He has a movie podcast called A Quality Interruption. He worked on a saloon book with his dad called American Saloons, Bars, and Cigar Stores.