Saturday, February 13, 2016

Embrace the Serpent (2015) is a masterpiece of the highest order

EMBRACE THE SERPENT is one of my favorite films from 2016.

It’s also a film that I think may become a true modern classic.

The film is the story of Karamakate who is a native dweller of the forest. Possessing great knowledge he is approached by a deathly ill German explorer and his companion in the hope that he can take him to a certain flower which he hopes will cure the disease that is killing him. He at first is reluctant , but agrees since he wants to reconnect with his people who he had thought had been wiped out by the white rubber barons. The film also is the story of a second trip Karamakate takes some forty or fifty years later with an American botanist looking for the same flower. Over the course of the film the two trips become one and we go to the heart of darkness and back again.

As this film gets wide release you are going to hear a lot of comparisons for EMBRACE THE SERPENT to the films of Werner Herzog, to APOCALYPSE NOW, to the novel Heart of Darkness or any other tale where there is a trip down a jungle river (or any journey film really). However doing so is kind of pointless and extremely lazy, since EMBRACE clearly stands above the others.  There are any number of reasons for this but chief among them is that we have Karamakate at the center. He is not a man looking for some dark secret rather he is a learned man who is hoping to teach the outside world about the real world and what it should and could be. Yes the film goes to the heart of darkness but it is a madness of the white man’s making. Those that go mad are not looking for some terrible truth but get side tracked by delusion. The madness here is not the end of the journey but the middle and you have to go past it to find enlightenment.

I have to point out that the sequences in the monastery are truly horrifying in the actual sense of the word. They are not scary like a horror movie but scary in a real world this could happen sort of a way. Yes there are monsters here- and they are men. The sequences are some of the best horror imagery ever put on film and it could be argued that the sequences puts the film on the short list of great horror films. The most damning thing is these sequences are some of the post powerful anti-religious imagery ever put on film, not because they are over the top, rather because they are matter of fact. In their simplicity we see what is wrong with the crazed beliefs of any sort.

I don’t think the film would ever have worked in color. The fact that the it’s all monochrome allows for the imagery to be dream like. The opening sequence where the dying German scientist‘s boat swings in off the river is truly other worldly. It's as if the boat and its occupants are dropping out of nowhere or from a dream into our world. At other times the characters feel disconnected from the world, a drift in a grand mist. At still other times the imagery seems documentary like and we are rooted in the now. We are in these places with these people and it’s a real occurrence. The realness matches the photographs we see in books or even the images from places like Vietnam during the war or elsewhere.

What I love about the film is that over the course the film we really get to the point where we feel like we are traveling. I love that by the end of the film how it feels like we’ve been some place special. It’s a rare thing to have that feeling from a film. There is a moment near the end of the tale where we realize that despite the film telling the story of two trips it’s really just one journey. As the film comes to a close Karamakate says to the American that he thought that he was supposed to teach his people the hidden truths of the world, but instead he realizes he was supposed to show it to the American. While that may be true in the film the greater truth is that the line is not directed to the man on screen but to those off- he is teaching us the greater truth. Karamakate is showing us all that we have lost. It is this two level trip- the adventure on screen and the one in our hearts which makes EMBRACING THE SERPENT what it is- a modern masterpiece of cinema.

The film opens Wednesday and is an absolute must see, especially on a big screen. Go see it because it will change your life.

This is my pick for the Oscar