Our current Movie of the Month, 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent, is an angry, hypnotic condemnation of colonialism, capitalism, anthropology, and all the various other ways white outsiders “bring hell and death” to the Amazonian regions of South America. Shot in a high-contrast black & white and set in two parallel, interlinked timelines, it takes a deliberately nontraditional approach to its journey along Amazonian rivers. In particular, it stands out as a modern subversion of the white explorer-centered narrative of (the Congo-set) Heart of Darkness, undermining the bravery & nobility of even its most enlightened white intruders while offering broader, more humanizing empathy to the Amazon’s Indigenous populations than previous descendants of the novel bothered to. Its unusual visual aesthetics & narrative structure feel deliberately distanced from how the Heart of Darkness adventure story is usually told onscreen, emphasizing the academic & political deviations in its dramatic themes.
When Embrace of the Serpent first hit theaters in 2015 (as one of the first films to play at The Broad Theater, during the first year of Swampflix, forever ago), it felt like a total anomaly. In the seven years since, there have been several additional South American-set Heart of Darkness subversions that have made their way through the film festival circuit (and through the doors of The Broad, incidentally), making Embrace of the Serpent feel like the start of a modern cinema trend that’s still building in momentum. To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more films about the “hell and death” white outsiders have brought to the Amazon, regardless of the purity of their intent or curiosity.
The Lost City of Z (2016)
James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is the most direct, obvious companion piece to Embrace of the Serpent, which in a lot of ways makes it the least rewarding. It’s not a terrible film, exactly, but the most it did for me was make me appreciate Embrace of the Serpent more through comparison. While Embrace of the Serpent is a dreamlike meditation on the cultural & environmental ravages of colonialism as seen through the eyes of the Indigenous people who’ve suffered it, The Lost City of Z is a lot more straight-forward & traditionalist in its presentation & choice of POV. It’s less of a subversion of the Heart of Darkness narrative than it is a continuation of previous doomed on-screen explorations like Fitzcarraldo & Apocalypse Now. Its themes are so loudly pronounced, and its narrative flow is so rigidly episodic that it plays more like an expensive TV show than proper cinema, presumably to stay true to the spirit & sequence of events in its source-material novel.
Like Embrace of the Serpent, Gray’s film uses the work of a real-life historical figure (British explorer Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam) to explain how colonialist disruption of Amazonian life & culture has been perpetuated by even the most well-intended, forward-thinking academics. Fawcett sets out to prove that the tribes of the Amazon region—thought to be subhuman by his fellow learned Brits—have built complex civilizations that long predate any similar British structures. On his repeat missions into the region, he intends to prove the humanity of the people indigenous to the land, but instead he’s essentially mapping out new courses for rubber extraction, something that only becomes more valuable as Europe nears WWI. It’s a “Be careful to not destroy what you wish to discover” story, but it’s told with such an uncritical, semi-heroic appreciation of Fawcett’s moral character that it feels almost retrograde in its politics (despite Fawcett’s real-life academic work still being relevant to modern anthropological study). Essentially, The Lost City of Z is only worth a recommendation to anyone who found Embrace of the Serpent to be a little too loose & ambiguous, offering a cleaned-up, watered-down version of its ideas in a more easily digestible package.
Swinging wildly in the other direction, Alejandro Landres’s Monos de-centers the heroic white interloper’s POV entirely in its own subversion of the Heart of Darkness template. Julianne Nicholson plays the only colonizer in the main cast: a medical doctor captured by an isolated faction of armed soldiers on the Columbian mountaintops. She’s also the only adult, held hostage at gunpoint by a teenage militia who’ve only known a violent world in opposition to her kind. While Embrace of the Serpent & The Lost City of Z treat the ravages of colonization in the Amazon as a past event that needs to be studied as history, Monos looks to its continuation into a dystopian future. We already contextualized Embrace of the Serpent as a post-apocalyptic tragedy in our original discussion of the film, but Monos makes that context a clear, distinct circumstance of its setting. It also pushes Embrace of the Serpent‘s dreamlike qualities even further into an intense, unknowable apocalypse – complete with a typically chilling Mica Levi score. If Embrace of the Serpent ushered in a new era of Heart of Darkness subversions, Monos feels like its most exciting, daring follow-up to date.
Like in Embrace of the Serpent, the most challenging aspect of Monos is getting your bearings. What’s clear is that we’re spending a couple tense hours in the Amazon jungle with a teenage militia as they struggle to maintain control over a political hostage and a sustenance-providing milk cow. The details surrounding that circumstance are continually disorienting as the whos, whys, and whens of the premise are kept deliberately vague. The temporal setting could range from thirty years in the past to thirty years into the apocalyptic future, limited only by the teen soldiers’ codenames being inspired by 80s pop culture references like Rambo & Smurf. The political ideology of The Organization that commands this baby-faced militia is never vocalized, hinted at only by the fact that the mostly POC youth are holding a white woman hostage. The film doesn’t waste any time establishing the rules of the world that surround this violent, jungle-set microcosm. Instead, it chooses to convey only the unrelenting tension & brutality that defines the daily life of this isolated tentacle of a much larger, undefined political resistance. It’s maddening – purposefully so. The sights, sounds, and performances that flood the screen are consistently, impressively intense, especially once they leave the mountaintops to traverse the crushing river rapids below. This is the post-apocalyptic world that past colonizers & adventurers have left behind; it’s a nightmare.
Icaros: A Vision (2017)
If Embrace of the Serpent & The Lost City of Z look to the past of colonialist exploitation in the Amazon, and Monos looks to its inevitable future, Icaros: A Vision might be a vision of its uneasy present. It’s a psychedelic drama that discusses the ways Amazonian people are still exploited by capitalist & colonial greed to this day, except it focuses more on the psychotropic medicines of the region instead of rubber extraction. Upon recovery from a near-fatal bout with breast cancer, visual artist Leonor Caraballo traveled to Peru to seek therapeutic guidance from the country’s local ayahuasca clinics, specifically the infamous Anaconda Cosmica, to help emotionally process her unexpected confrontation with mortality. While participating in the religious ritual of ingesting the psychotropic plant with the guidance of shamans, Caraballo saw a vision of her own death and returned to her home in Argentina convinced of two things: 1) that she was going to die of the cancer’s soon-to-come aggressive return and 2) that she had to make a film about her experience with the ayahuasca plant. The result of these convictions, Icaros: A Vision, partly serves as a therapeutic processing of dread & grief personal to Caraballo’s story. However, the film also strives to capture the religious reverence Peruvian people find in plants like ayahuasca and to poke fun at outsiders who treat the ritual that helped the filmmaker through her darkest hour like a colonialist act of tourism. Unfortunately, Caraballo did not live to see the completion of her own film; she guided much if its post-production decision making from her death bed with the help of her co-director Matteo Norzi. What she left behind, though, is a visually striking, peacefully meditative look at the culture surrounding ayahuasca rituals, recalling the eerie dreamspace explored in Embrace of the Serpent.
An American woman arrives at Anaconda Cosmica unsure of how ayahuasca rituals can help her process her fear of death and whether she even has the courage to find out. Other patients paying for the privilege of the retreat are addressing issues varying in severity from addiction & self-harm to alleviating a stutter to improve an acting career. The mood of the retreat is decidedly peaceful, a tone commanded by the always-present sounds of the jungle. Invading thoughts of technology, particularly MRI scans of the American woman’s cancer, interrupt the reverie on occasion, but don’t fully elbow out the serenity of the jungle until the nighttime ayahuasca rituals start & end. During the routine ceremonies, a shaman-in-training peers into the various hallucinations of his patients (or “passengers,” in the movie’s parlance) as if he were literally switching channels on a television. The spiritual difference between natural & technological imagery could not be clearer, as the young shaman attempts (through the ritual of meditative breathing & song) to save the paying customers from invading dark thoughts that could spoil their trip. Early on, the film is about his efforts to save the protagonist from the crippling fear of death sparked by her cancer diagnosis. However, at some point that dynamic flips. The American woman, now strengthened by the psychedelic therapy sessions, helps the shaman face his own fears of an incurable medical diagnosis. It’s interesting to see the service industry aspect of their relationships subvert itself as they naturally become better acquainted through the deeply intimate ritual of ayahuasca ingestion, but more importantly the film uses their tender interactions as a purposefully humanist window into a culture that could be depicted as all meditative chants and visual hallucination if not treated with enough open-minded empathy.
Icaros: A Vision is a quiet, still, meditative piece that fully lives up to the visual focus indicated by its title. Everything from muscular river dolphins & the green of the Peruvian jungle to video game imagery & bright florescent piss shape the film’s all-encompassing meditations on life & death. Somehow, the overall effect is more hypnotic than it is showy or gimmicky. Leonor Caraballo’s background as a visual artist shows in the way she carefully frames each isolated hallucination, but her vulnerability & ultimate mortality as a human being is what affords the work a solemn but rewarding purpose. Humor at the expense of “passengers” who treat the Anaconda Cosmica like a luxury hotel and its (non-actor) employees/residents like servants are slyly mocked in a social politics-minded undercurrent of humor. That comedy is just one thread in a larger tapestry, though, and the overall picture includes a hypnotic, but encyclopedic catalog of plants that are important to Peruvian culture, an ethnographic documentation of ayahuasca rituals’ adoption as tourist industry fodder, visual attempts to capture the vivid hallucinations triggered by those rituals, etc. It’s not as outwardly angry of a film as Embrace of the Serpent, but it’s one that brings the same cultural & political criticisms into a modern context that make them even more vivid in my mind.