EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (15) Directed by Ciro Guerra, with Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar. Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina 2015. 124 mins. Spanish with English subtitles.
The recent commemorations in Dublin of the centenary of the Easter Rising are a reminder of the involvement of Roger Casement, whose activities in attempting to encourage Germany to allow those prisoners of war who were Irish to join in the uprising against British rule were unsuccessful, and who was arrested on an Irish beach where he was deposited by a German submarine apparently on his way to try to stop the uprising as it would, in his opinion, fail.
Sounds complicated? He was tried for treason and, ultimately, executed in London.
Roger Casement was very famous in the pre-war years for exposing the activities of the companies which ran the rubber plantations, first in Belgian controlled Congo and then in the Amazon. The treatment of those who worked for these companies was beyond cruel, beyond inhuman, beyond imagination really. Failure to deliver the sap from the rubber trees would result in having hands, feet, limbs cut off. They were beaten, their families were beaten and killed. It was horrific.
The exploitation of the local population for the rubber trade is confronted directly in this film. Deep in the rainforest we meet a man who has had an arm cut off. When he discovers that his containers of sap have been emptied onto the ground, he begs to be shot as he knows he will be tortured and killed by those for whom he works.
Further along, on the journey up river, we arrive at a Christian mission, the lone priest attempting to look after a large number of children, orphans whose parents have been murdered by the rubber traders.
Embrace of the Serpent concerns two journeys by canoe, both in search of the same elusive plant, Yakruna. Unlike Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where the journey is towards something more horrific than can be imagined, Yakruna is a source of healing, of salvation. The first journey, set roughly in Roger Casement's time, concerns a European who is dying and Yakruna is his only hope of a cure. The journey in the indefinite present also involves a European, also in search of Yakruna, about which he has learnt from the journals of the earlier explorer.
Sounds complicated? It isn't and it is. The sting in the tail is the way the film plays with time. Some of these characters seem impossibly old. The two journeys seem to cross over in strange ways.
Two weeks ago I wrote about Complicite's theatre production, Encounter, an individual take on a European's experiences in the Amazon jungle. That production used sound to take the audience out of their comfort zone, to make them experience the story in a new way, to take them out of time.
This film does something similar in a different way. It doesn't retreat from the horror, or from the fact that so much that was the Amazon, the jungle, people, the world of that place and time is now lost. It takes that time and our time and melds them together, that what is lost is still there in some way, that it isn't too late, that there is some kind of hope.
This is a film which you need to see more than once. And the black and white cinematography is a joy to behold. See it on the big screen - before it's too late!