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Manuel de Layet [Celluloid 06.02.15] Argentina adventure

What measure of our surrounding universe is processed through our senses into reality? How can we ever be sure our own understanding of the cosmos isn't biased by a less than optimal apparatus? How would you convey that notion into a language based on those faulty processes? The Lovecraftian "unspeakable" is a child's drawing; the malformed attempt of transforming a human face into a circle with two squiggly eyes. Moving pictures on the other hand, can push the boundaries a little bit further than the written word and in this particular case, using subtraction of a given pillar in our sensory toolbox. But I may be ahead of myself here, so let's start properly.

Embrace of the Serpent, taking its roots in the works and expeditions of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes, oscillates between ethnological documentary and mystical self-discovery through the quest for a sacred flower.

Oscillate may be not the best term, since each shot is laden to the brim with meaning, symbolism and a compelling story to boot. Everything so closely weaved together it's actually hard to dissect it into independent parts. Think of different sine waves synchronizing themselves on an oscilloscope and you'll have a rather good depiction of the narrative.

Thematically there is one constant herding all the components down the same path, like in a French Rite initiation: we will elevate ourselves gradually from the profane to the sacred. Being rather traditionalist when mysticism is done right, I'll follow the same here.

This is the first movie shot on location in the Amazon in nearly a lifetime. I can't begin to imagine the conditions and the toll imposed on crew and hardware. If you thought the Ford Brothers' The Dead films were pinnacles of suicidal film-making, this is en par. Besides giving the image a luxuriating quality impossible to achieve with potted plants, the setting also translates into a rather cunning, linguist wet dream. With no less than nine spoken languages, subtitles are mandatory.

The two expeditions we will engage with are set apart by forty years. Their initial link is Karamakate, the world-mover, guide to both. Of course it is the same journey, past and future will follow the same trails, the same places will be explored, the guide consciousness flowing from one time-line to the other as he remembers what will happen.

On the profane side, the themes range from the academic lust for knowledge to the consequences of the half-arsed colonization of the area. However broad these topics are, the execution is both accessible to the layman and minute enough to satisfy a more focused interest. The Spanish mission is worthy of note; the study of a closed system based on fear and punishment, rotting away into perversity and badly teaching transubstantiation on top of ritual cannibalism leading to rather grim consequences.

Also in the spotlight is the materialistic hoarding that is the curse of the occidental mind. The Confucian adage of not holding dear more belongings that can fit in a small briefcase, is not in our collective psyche. The frail boats overburdened with extremely important junk is a fitting metaphor to the psychological baggage of the heroes.

Higher on the abstraction scale is the Amazon itself. A portal between the different planes, we travel from one life through the other via reflections on its surface. Challenging the old "you can't cross the same river twice" perception of time as linear, the water here is treated as Okeanos, an all encompassing boundary to life itself. As for time, project the aforementioned sine waves on a cylinder and you'll get a rather good depiction on how it is treated here.

There's also the concept of "empty shells" that will ring a volley of bells to any dabbler in the Kabbalistic tradition. Some elements of the human lore are seemingly universal.

There is much more to Embrace of the Serpent than my crude words can try to explain but as I iterated at opening, maybe our language isn't adequate to express some concepts. And there is the greatest part of our little trip in the Amazon.

What words cannot express, pictures can. Especially moving ones. A way to depict our faulted sense is indeed to take something as lush and colorful as the rainforest and then film it in black and white. Then, just at the end, as the climax unfolds, include short glimpses of color and forms.

While I find the idea tremendously amusing and interesting, the way in which it is done is the only aspect which is a bit underwhelming. Never use stock images. Even from NASA. Everyone knows them and it's a quick way to kill the magic you've been patiently weaving for hours.

Apart for that end of the line hiccup, Embrace of the Serpent is the most interesting, esoteric experience cinema can offer today. See it. It may change your life.

Recommended Release: The Dead

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