Bonus Features: Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

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.

Monos (2019)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

RRR (2022)

As I’ve already stated in reviews for titles like Karnan, War, Saaho, Master, and 2.0, there is nothing Hollywood has to offer than can out-entertain mainstream Indian action cinema.  While American action franchises like the MCU and the Fast & Furious “saga” have long outlasted their initial novelty, Indian movie industries like Kollywood & Tollywood routinely escalate the explosive absurdism of the genre to new, delirious heights audiences have never seen before.  They recall Hong Kong’s heyday as the most exciting, inventive action scene in the world, when seemingly every new title—no matter how anonymous or cheap—instantly earned a place in the canon of all-time greats.  And even with that miles-high industry standard looming over him, director S.S. Rajamouli might be establishing himself as the very best craftsman in modern Indian actioners – recently striking big with the two-part action epic Baahubali, and now following it up with the ferociously entertaining RRR.  While most modern, bloated American action pics only offer a post-nap headache, a Rajamouli picture guarantees a skull-cracking good time.

RRR is an anti-colonialist epic about the power of friendship (and the power of bullets, and the power of wolves, and the power of grenades, and the power of tigers, and the power of dynamite, and the power of bears, oh my!).  The two friends at the center are a fantastically unlikely pair, frequently compared to fire & water, or “a volcano & a wildfire” in the rock anthems that underscore their volatile bond.  One is a militant supercop whose wuxia superheroics enable him to fight off an ocean of unruly protestors while armed with just a baton.  The other is a rural tribal leader on a one-man, Schwarzenegger-style mission to avenge his people against a governmental wrong – culminating in releasing wild, blood-starved animals at a fancy garden party in a righteous act of terrorism.  Separately, either one of these burly supermen could’ve been highlighted as the hero of their own over-the-top action adventure; likewise, either one could’ve played villain.  Instead, the movie gives them equal time as dual protagonists, eventually pushing them to form Voltron (see also: Krang, Master Blaster) as one united force against a common, worthier enemy: white British colonizers.  It’s a beautiful bromance between good, muscly buds, with plenty explosions, dance-offs, and feral animal attacks keeping up the energy as they fall further in bruv.

RRR never strays from its mission as a populist crowd-pleaser, but it’s also a fiercely political film.  Every white British colonizer that rules over 1920s Delhi in the picture is a sneering, monstrous piece of shit, and the entire arc of the unlikely cop-dissident friendship that forms at that colony’s fringes is pushing for their violent overthrow.  A pre-credits warning explains that the events of the film are fictional (a disclaimer that’s even less necessary than its companion warning that the wild “animals” are entirely CG), but both of the film’s dual heroes were real-life revolutionaries & populist heroes.  Alluri Sitarama Raju & Komaram Bheem violently revolted against colonialist rule in the 1920s & 30s in separate rebellions.  RRR functions as a kind of anti-imperialist fan fiction that turns those historical heroes of the people into modern heroes of the screen.  At the very least, it’s a much more politically purposeful & satisfying superhero team-up than any comic book or street-racing equivalent I can name in its genre’s American competition.  That probably goes without saying, but it is stunning to see populist cinema with sharpened fangs, since so much of what we’re fed at home is conspicuously toothless.

Anything else I could say in praise of RRR would just be a rambling list of exciting images.  You don’t need to hear about a motorcycle being launched as an explosive projectile any more than you need to hear about a wolf & a tiger brawling for dominance or our two heroes locking arms for the first time against a full-flame backdrop.  All you need to know is that friendship is beautiful, imperialism is evil, and S.S. Rajamouli knows how to entertain.  See RRR big & loud while you can.  Otherwise, you’ll regret missing the chance when it’s shrunken down to TV-scale on Netflix in a couple months.

-Brandon Ledet

Zombi Child (2020)

Bertrand Bonello’s follow-up to the wonderfully icy teen-terrorist drama Nocturama is a from-the-ground-up renovation of the zombie film. Zombi Child directly reckons with the racist, colonialist history of onscreen zombie lore, and pushes through that decades-old barrier to draw from the untapped potential of its roots in legitimate Vodou religious practices. It’s a deceptively well-balanced film that evokes both Michael Haneke’s cold, academic political provocations and Celine Sciamma’s emotionally rich coming-of-age narratives while somehow also delivering the genre goods teased in its title. The only film I can recall that attempts its same wryly funny but passionately political subversion of long-established horror tropes is the recent festival circuit curio I Am Not a Witch, and yet it’s clearly part of the same lineage as its genre’s pre-Romero beginnings in titles like I Walked With a Zombie. Gore hounds and horror essentialists are likely to be bored by the thoughtful, delicate deconstruction of the genre attempted here, but if you can get on-board with Bonello’s academic evisceration of zombie cinema tropes the movie feels almost outright revolutionary.

The narrative is split between two dominant timelines. In 1960s Haiti, a man is zombified by a Vodou ritual that drags his body out of the grave only to force him to work as a slave on a sugar cane plantation. In 2010s Paris, his teenage descendant is struggling to adapt to her new life at a bougie boarding school for (mostly white) French legacy kids, gradually losing touch with her Haitian heritage. The modernism of the contemporary timeline at first feels entirely disconnected from the eerie atmosphere of the historical Haitian setting. Teen girl bonding rituals and casual discussions of Rihanna’s discography don’t immediately feel as if they have anything to do with zombie plantation slaves an ocean & a half-century away. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that the subjugative evils of the past cannot be severed from their echo in the present; it is impossible to have a normal, healthy relationship across class, cultural, and racial borders without acknowledging the colonialist abuses of our ancestors. At least half of Zombi Child is an observational coming-of-age drama that plainly presents modern teen girlhood at its most natural, but it still manages to establish a direct tether from that setting to a centuries-old Vodou tradition long before the connection becomes explicit at the film’s crescendo.

The most impressive aspect of Bonello’s touch here is how out in the open the film’s academic explorations can be, even though a significant portion of the screentime is focused on teens just hanging out, being kids. Classroom lectures at the boarding school about the unfulfilled promises of the French Revolution and the imperialist legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte (the school’s founder, no less) are allowed to simmer for minutes on end. The girls themselves are self-designated literature nerds, which means they get to discuss the evolution of the zombie movie in-dialogue and to recite poems with lines like “Listen, white world, as our dead roar. Listen to my zombie voice honoring the dead.” The historical Haiti setting is much less vocal, as it mostly follows a zombified plantation slave’s sublingual path back to human consciousness. It’s no less overtly academic in its themes, though, pushing discussions of how cinema represents “black bodies” and slave labor to its most literal extreme. Sequences of zombie field workers despondently hacking at sugar cane with machetes—too pathetically drained of human life to even remain vertical without assistance—are just as horrifying as any brain-eating or disemboweling undead carnage you’re likely to see in a more straightforward genre exercise.

The zombie genre has become an over-saturated market in the last few decades, especially when it comes to grim post-Apocalyptic melodramas like The Walking Dead. At this point, the term “zombie apocalypse” alone is enough to send even the most horror-hungry audiences running to the hills out of madness & boredom. The continued appeal of zombies as a genre device is understandable though, especially when you consider the flexibility of the metaphor. There’s nothing especially novel or compelling about the survivalist, doomsday prepper bent of most modern zombie media, but there are still plenty of outlier examples where storytellers uncover new thematic purposes for the undead in metaphor: Indigenous peoples’ frayed relationships with white settlers in Blood Quantum, the monstrous stench beneath America’s idealized Conservative past in Fido, the unwelcome return of Nazi ideology in Overlord & Dead Snow, etc. Zombi Child feels like a slightly different beast, though, and not only because it’s not a straight-up Horror film. Bonello’s contribution to the genre stands out because he dials the clock back even further than these equally political Romero riffs to directly engage with zombie lore at its original, real-world birthplace. It scorches the earth so it can start entirely anew, calling into question whether our cultural zombie obsession is itself a continuation of colonialist pilfering. More impressive yet, it does so while also taking time to declare “Diamonds” to be the best Rihanna song.

-Brandon Ledet

Missing Link (2019)

Laika has already earned a lifetime pass with their spooky stop-motion gems Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings, but it’s not going to be much of a lifetime if the animation studio doesn’t start pulling in more money. As beloved as those titles are among movie nerds and very specific budding-horror-fan children, none have really broken through to genuine box office success. The studio has essentially depended on the money its CEO Travis Knight has inherited from his Nike co-founder father Phil Knight, who is technically Laika’s owner. That sneaker money won’t keep them afloat forever, and Laika is desperate for a hit to become a self-sustaining enterprise. That might explain why they stepped slightly outside their usual spooky, Halloween-flavored children’s media realm to produce a cutesy comedy about a goofball yeti. The gamble did not work in a financial sense, but the resulting movie was still about as solid as you’d expect from the studio – who are maybe too high-brow & visually polished for their own good.

I’m not sure what movie greenlighting algorithm has prompted animation studios to believe that yetis are what children are salivating to see on the big screen at the moment, but it was a decision that paid off nicely for DreamWorks & Universal – who recently had sizeable hits with the CG-animated shrugs Smallfoot & Abominable, respectively. Laika, of course, was the only studio of the trio to outright flop in this endeavor, doubling their usual production budget on what appeared to be a surefire hit and only earning 1/5th of it back at the box office. Their mistake was being the one studio who actually gave a shit about animation as an artform – pushing their usual combination of tactile stop-motion wizardry & CGI-smoothed touchups to create a one-of-a-kind globetrotting adventure. Casting overgrown man-child Zach Galifianakis as a buffoonish sasquatch who takes figures of speech as literally as Amelia Bedelia was their only attempt to bridge the gap to what most modern animation studios do in their globally-exported box office hits – a real “Zendaya is Meechee” kind of decision. It wasn’t enough.

Thematically, Missing Link makes for a lighthearted companion piece to the recent stop-motion arthouse bummer This Magnificent Cake!. Both films use traditional slapstick humor to satirize the absurdity of historical colonialism, although Missing Link’s approach to the material is much sillier than it is traumatizing. Hugh Jackman voices a self-proclaimed “famous” monster hunter (the one nod to the studio’s typical horror bent) who attempts to earn the respect of legitimate big-game hunters by capturing creatures like The Loch Ness Monster and, yes, Bigfoot. Galifianakis voices that living Bigfoot specimen, a sweetly non-confrontational beast who longs to find more creatures of his own kind so he can stop living as an ostracized misfit. The pair team up to help each other’s causes. The yeti is a crude New World goofball searching for purpose & a sense of Home in his Old World ancestry, while the monster hunter learns just how harmful his self-serving, globetrotting colonialism is to everyone he touches. The mistake the movie made was in having themes or a point of view at all. It probably would have made much more money if they had just animated Galifianakis singing Meghan Trainor karaoke or some other such horseshit.

Missing Link is very cute in its slapstick humor, and often stunning in its visual artistry. It’s about on par with The Boxtrolls all told, which is to say it’s mediocre by Laika standards but still on a level far above most modern children’s cinema. It sucks to have to focus so much on the film’s financial failure in appraising its worth as art, but that failure is very much a part of its story. This is Laika reaching out as far as possible from their niche spooky-stop-motion corner of children’s media to welcome in a wide audience, and the most they got for the effort was a token Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature (which I fear will just automatically defer to whatever microwaved Disney or Pixar sequel it’s up against this Sunday). It’s not their strongest work, but it manages to be their most accessible while still maintaining a unique, technically marvelous visual style and an admirably pointed worldview. I wish it had been enough of a smash success to fund more weirdo, spooky outliers like Coraline or Kubo, but instead I’m left worrying that their sneaker money is going to dry up any day now.

-Brandon Ledet

Zama (2018)

In the opening sequence of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, the titular government goon stands on a South American beach, longingly staring at the open water. His anguish in that thousand-yard-stare is twofold: a lonely desire to reconnect with his wife & children in his Spaniard home country and, more prominently, a soul-crushing boredom. All around him indigenous people are living their normal lives: sunbathing, chatting, playing in the sand with loved ones. Meanwhile, his own life is locked in a permanent stasis, as if his assigned post as a magistrate for the Spanish crown were a prison sentence, not an honor. It’s an excruciating fate, but he deserves worse.

Diego de Zama’s fate of being permanently stuck in a foreign land he finds to be a soul-crushing bore is a purely existential kind of torment. He pleads to higher-ups in the Spanish government from every possible angle, including letters to the Crown, to release him from this hellish Limbo, to no avail. If Zama were a moralistic tale about the evils of 17th Century colonialism, this professional prison where its wicked lead awaits a transfer that’s never to come might play like a just, torturous punishment for the sins of Spanish occupation he’s in charge of administering in Paraguay. Instead, the film plays the torture as a more surreal, existential plight; his punishment is made all the harsher & more satisfying because it is entirely meaningless and void of intent.

The bored, anguished stasis of Zama pushes beyond real-world logic to reach the surreal, philosophical existentialism of works like The Exterminating Angel & Waiting for Godot. The film’s mocking of civility is especially Buñuelian, as Diego de Zama & his fellow in-Limbo cohorts foolishly attempt to maintain their homeland nobility despite the indignity of their posts. Their white legislative wigs & vibrantly dyed fabrics look absolutely absurd in the Natural environments they’re tasked to occupy & govern. The juxtaposition of their heartless brutality & mannered civility is often allowed to clash for dark humor, as in scenes where the Spanish government goons enslave or beat locals and then politely kiss each other on the cheek according to custom. Just as often as it’s bleakly humorous, however, Zama allows the out-of-place quality of its damned protagonist to hang in the air for eerie surreality.

I won’t pretend that I fully understood the themes or drama of Zama beyond its existential anguish & mockery of civility, but I was often struck by the potency of its imagery anyway. Lamas, fish scales, naked children, and skin dyed red & blue disorient the eye with continual surprise, despite the contained, reality-bound premise. Diego de Zama is tasked with capturing a local rapist/murderer and bringing him to justice. This seems like a straightforward enough task, but it’s somehow played to be as pointlessly absurd as any of his other assigned duties. His distanced relationship with his family and his treatment of local black bodies as tools & furniture seem similarly ripe for narrative propulsion but are left to rot in discomfort along with the protagonist. Mostly, Zama functions as an eerie nightmare of Natural images, like a costume drama version of Icaros: A Vision. There are certainly historical & thematic elements of the film that sailed miles over my head, but being perplexed by a well-crafted image is its own kind of pleasure.

-Brandon Ledet