Embrace of the Serpent

On Friday we had a night at Carbon Arc unlike any we’d had before.

By the time we started to sell tickets to the evening’s show, just around 6:30pm, we already had a line-up out the door of the Museum of Natural History’s side entrance. That’s never happened before. The walk-in tickets went in a flash, and we wound up having to turn away many.

We hate to do that, as I explained last week.

When we program the season’s films, it’s sometimes hard to know what will catch fire the way this one did. MacBeth, which plays this coming Friday, February 26, we predict will be a big draw—an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays starring marquee names Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender—so we scheduled both 7pm and 9:30pm screenings. For a variety of reasons, we weren’t able to do that for Embrace Of The Serpent, and we’re sorry to all those who were unable to get in.

Our plan is to reassess our ticket policies in view of the current high demand to make it easier for everyone. But, any big changes won’t be instituted until the fall season, soonest. So, for now, we continue to encourage everyone who is interested in seeing a film to purchase advance tickets from the website, payment is available either by PayPal or credit card. Once either 50 tickets have sold or at noon on screening day, whichever comes first, advance tickets go ‘OFF SALE’ and 25 will be available a half hour before the screening at the door.

And, a reminder: Even if you’ve paid for tickets in advance, at 7pm on the night of the screening we will sell any tickets that haven’t yet been picked up to anyone waiting to get in.

 
Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace of the Serpent

 

We were thrilled that our full house included so many representatives of Halifax’s South American and Hispanic community, including Colombians keen to see the first feature film from their nation to be nominated for an Oscar. Afterwards, I spoke with a couple of the Spanish-speaking audience members. They both remarked of the beauty of the film, having enjoyed its black-and-white cinematography.

One said he struggled with the psychedelic elements, representing the effects of a character ingesting a hallucinogenic plant, because that imagery seemed like such a departure from the look of the rest of the film.

One of our volunteers talked about shooting on film versus shooting digital—Embrace Of The Serpent was made with digital cameras—and he wondered about the soft focus in places, whether that was the intent of the filmmaker or just a side-effect of a guerilla film-shoot in a challenging environment.

 
The striking black-and-white cinematography was a highlight for viewers.

The striking black-and-white cinematography was a highlight for viewers.

 

I wasn’t bothered by issues of focus, but I was entirely captivated by the cinematography and the story. The forked narrative beguiles from the very beginning—a white European in 1907 travels up the Amazon and its tributaries in the company of two indigenous men, searching for a legendary plant to help cure his tropical disease, while in the late-’30s another scientist visits the same area, finding the shaman from the earlier journey now much older and disconnected from the past.

These mirrored stories are both entirely compelling, one easily overlapping with another. The film borrows liberally from Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness and its most famous cinematic adaptation, Apocalypse Now, as well as Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a technical nod or two to John Sayles’ Lone Star. All that said, it very much has its own flavour in its look and direction, as well as the complex relationships between the characters. At no time is this a tale of noble natives, nor is it entirely a diatribe against colonialism. It’s too sophisticated for either.

The film shows with clear eyes the effect of religion and European influence and industry on the region and its people, all through the personal experience of the individual characters: Two white explorers, both with ulterior motives, and one shaman who respects the demands of the jungle, but is also angry and hurt by the way his people have changed, isolated and uncertain of his own role in this changing world. There’s also a freed slave, deeply scarred and struggling with the injustices he witnesses. Even with these heavy themes, it’s a story that finds moments of humour—the tone management is masterful.

 
The film deftly balances the cultural and personal differences of its characters.

The film deftly balances the cultural and personal differences of its characters.

 

Full marks to the key performers for carrying so much of this story in so much silence and a multitude of languages: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, and Yauenkü Migue. Through them the director, Ciro Guerra, working from diaries by actual Amazonian explorers, creates the kind of film that your mind just sinks into, like a deep, warm mud. There’s no effort required to suspend your disbelief—this feels like human history writ large via docudrama.

If I’d had a chance to see it in 2015, when it was first released internationally, Embrace Of The Serpent would have easily cracked my Top 10 films of the year.

Oh, and one more thing to mention: For anyone who missed the conversation I had with Stephen Cooke after the February 5 screening of Hitchcock/Truffaut at Carbon Arc, you can download it now from iTunes for free (it’s #018). We discuss the documentary and a few of the many great films directed by The Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.