Embrace of the Serpent director talks about casting Amazonian non-actors, cinematic mysticism and the unconscious influence of 2001
March 16, 2016
Last week, Embrace of the Serpent, a movie that will certainly go down as one of the best films that saw release in the United States in 2016, started playing in area art houses in South Florida. This writer caught it last year as part of “Gems,” an annual mini film festival hosted by Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. For the most part, during the weekend-long event, I could tell when I saw excellent work (The Assassin, My Golden Days) and rather problematic work (Youth, The Club). But Embrace fell into another kind of category as far as cinematic experiences go. It confounded me. I knew I saw a brilliant film, though I did not understand how it worked as well as it did. It reminded me of the first time, back in 1999, when I saw Eyes Wide Shut in theaters. I knew I saw another masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick, though I could not express exactly why it was so great. Several viewings later, having read the source material and written about it during my master’s degree, I came to understand it better and admire it deeper (I promise to publish the Lacanian analysis I wrote of the film by the end of the year).
It was a similar experience with Embrace of the Serpent. It took a second and even a third viewing before I could confidently understand what a masterpiece this film was. In speaking with at least four other film critics, over the months since I first saw the movie, I learned I was not the only with that same experience.
With it’s commercial release in 2016 last month by the marvelous indie studio Oscilloscope, it came time to reckon with this movie. I was honored that Michael Koresky of Film Comment, Criterion Collection and now Metrograph fame, allowed me to tangle with a close reading of it on Reverse Shot, the website he co-edits with Jeff Reichert. You can read my in-depth and somewhat spoilery review (but I think it will enhance a first time viewing, if you don’t want to invest in seeing it more than once) by jumping through the site’s logo below:
As the film headed to Miami, earlier this month, I also could not pass on an opportunity to speak to the film’s director Ciro Guerra, who helped clarify some questions I had about it. Guerra explained that he wanted to respect the culture he represents on the big screen. His research was extensive, including spending months in parts of the Amazon. After reading two books written by two early 20th century European explorers of the region, the German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, he came up with the film’s dual narrative with co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal.
The film’s stories unfold by alternating between the narratives, one at the start of the 20th century and the other 40 years into the future. The film’s lead character is Karamakate, played by two native, non-actors, Nilbio Torres and the elder Antonio Bolivar, as he guides two different explorers based on the authors of the books Guerra used for research (Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis) on similar journeys in search of a near extinct plant with hallucinogenic properties called the yakruna. And don’t bother looking up yakruna. Its name was made up for the movie. “The Shaman asked to keep it fictional because those names are sacred,” said the director, speaking via phone from his home country of Colombia. “You shouldn’t learn them from a movie,” he added.
It’s a mystical film both thematically and cinematically. The connection between landscape and setting and the similarities among the different people Karamakate encounters speaks to the ineffable tangents of time and place (he thinks of the two explorers as the same man, as the later one uses the older one’s book in furthering his knowledge). This begs for something other than a straight narrative, which Guerra fulfills throughout the movie. He harnesses this anti-linear approach to storytelling to make insightful connections between scenes that share locations at different times as well as connecting the two explorers Karamakate guides through the Amazon basin via their essential selves and not their physical bodies. There’s even a duality in the shaman’s two selves that transcends age.
Below are some highlights of our conversation that should not spoil the film but allow for some insight into it. There’s simply nothing like this movie, and the more prepared you are for it, the more thrilling it will feel. Below our abridged Q&A you will find a link to a story I wrote in the Miami New Times, last week, which goes further into the concepts that inform the film.
Independent Ethos: What did the non-actors who played Karamakate surprise you with in their performances?
Ciro Guerra: I was very concerned about that at the beginning of the process because these are real people who haven’t been acting, and they have no relationship to theater or to cinema, so I thought it was going to be difficult to ask them to act. But they may not have this contact, but they have this oral tradition that they have kept alive for centuries really. So they know how to tell a story and they really, really know how to listen, and it’s not that easy to find an actor who can listen. They were especially happy about making the film and being able to perform in their own language.
What did either one of them bring to their roles that was special?
Nilbio, He’s more playful. He has a broader range. He could play very well if he’s angry. He could play very well if he’s sad. He could play with this very complex range of emotions because he’s really open to emotional experience. He’s a really dynamic actor. Antonio has the more serene approach. He just stands there and just with his existence, his gaze, looks at you. They were two completely different actors in a way, but what we did was we built on that. We constructed the two faces of a character, but they also trust their gut. They also helped us re-write part of the script to make them more accurate and true in many ways. It was a very creative process, a very collaborative process.
Where did you learn so much about pre-Colombian mysticism in the Amazon?
It was a long process of research. I didn’t know anything about it, but basically it was the writings of the explorers. They were my guides, at first, and then, when I arrived in the Amazon, I stayed about two and a half years, going back and forth and spending a lot of time with shamans, elders and different communities in the Amazon, learning about what makes the community different and special. It was very difficult at the beginning because in the Amazon you are constantly confronted. It’s just a different way of thinking from our own that it makes you wonder a lot of different things about who you are.
The sequence at the end of the film is amazing. How did you create those special effects?
It’s iconography of the Barasana people. That’s the way they represent the spiritual world. When we made the film, we didn’t want to do a special effects show. It was something more primitive. It was something a child could draw.
For me, the final scenes recall 2001‘s stargate sequence. Was that an influence?
Some people have said that, and it’s surprising to me, but it also makes perfect sense because these guys, these explorers, were the ones that opened up these ideas of the spirituality to the people, and that was something that was very big in the ’60s. So it sort of comes full circle in a way.
But it wasn’t a direct influence?
No, no, no. Maybe not on a conscious level because 2001 is one of my favorite movies of all time, so maybe on an unconscious level it was.
The musical score is incredible as well. It mixes electronics and native chanting. Can you tell me how this idea to mix the two came about?
It wasn’t just about using indigenous music, and that’s it. The film is about dialogue between two cultures, a dialogue that can be very violent at times, but it’s a story of cultures coming together, so the score is basically indigenous music in dialogue and the work of Western composers.
Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?
I couldn’t see the film in any other way. If I had to do it in color, I would prefer not to do it. It would be a completely different film.
This is the third time Colombia submitted one of your films to the Oscars. Now you are nominated. How does that make you feel?
It’s surprising. This year there were so many films by masters, and it was a surprise when we made the short list, but to be nominated is not something that you can see coming.
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You can read more of our conversation, including more on why Guerra shot in black and white, the quantum level of time and existence he learned from the Amazon tribes he encountered during the filmmaking process and how it influences his storytelling, in the Miami New Times by jumping through the link below:
Embrace of the Serpent runs 125 minutes, is in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin, Tikuna, Cubeo, Huitoto and maybe some other Amazonian dialects with English subtitles and is not rated (expect violent images and transcendence via natural hallucinogens). It is now playing in our South Florida area at the Tower Theater, Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema Wynwood. To the north, in Broward it is playing at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., where it is scheduled to continue to roll out through April, visit this link and scroll down to “screenings.” We first saw this movie as a guest of Miami International Film Festival’s Gems event, in October. All images in this post were provided by Oscilloscope, except for that of the director, which is from IMDB.com. Oscilloscope also provided a screener link for repeat viewings.