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The Big Ship Recommends: Embrace of the Serpent

Conrad's river has not been without its travellers through the years. But none seem to be as accepting and simultaneously mournful as this.

'Who are you to withhold knowledge? Knowledge belongs to all men.'

Conrad's river has not been without its travellers through the years. Many artists, philosophers and prospectors of the Inner in both film and literature have been compelled to ride downstream towards their own heart of darkness: truth; telos; a pot of gold at the end of a tormented rainbow. But none seem to be as accepting and simultaneously mournful as Ciro Guerra's hypnotic Embrace of the Serpent.

An angle perhaps most in line with Joseph Conrad's original Heart of Darkness, Embrace' is born from the consequences of imperialism and rubber-thirsty greed. And yet, the film works almost as an antidote to the fevers of past odysseys, a peaceful balm to Apocalypse Now's destructive scramble for power: the slow river winds on a whisper and the black and white imagery seems to blush from the undergrowth, softly mythic. Where in Coppola's film, knowledge is a weapon – one that is forged and distorted as reality and sanity slip to the tide – here knowledge is an end in itself, tightening the rope between inner and outer before our protagonists continue downriver.

And unlike Apocalypse Now's resolute, usurping deicide, here the voyage continues through the pot of gold and beyond to incandescent, fractal understanding. The limbs of Earth scarred, they are bent to bleed white sap by the intrusive aesthetics of machinery; so silver stains. These shores might be wounded fresh and pulpy by consumption – those who dock on the soil are poisoned with longing – but we learn how upon the water giving and taking become the same thing and there are no endings or beginnings.

Though Embrace' is adapted from real-life botanist journals and diaries, it also throbs with legend, imbued with deep Amazonian myth. Under the astral eyes of the jaguar, an anaconda falls whipping from the milky way to meet those that drink the sacred Caapi. Karamakate will guide the white man, Theo, on his quest to understand more of that which his people destroy and years later, Karamakate will forget of Theo, then guide Evan down scabby rivulets left arid by the past. This is not a murderous search for Colonel Kurtz – a man who thinks he is God – but instead about a man who has forgotten that God does not need to be searched for. He is at risk of becoming a Chullachaqui – a husk of what was once a man – and must evade being dragged stifled and drowning away by the current of time.

Though contemplative, it is not however a completely zen ride: disturbing (one particular digression into faith and missionary takes up the most action-packed portion of the film) and tragic moments relate the most human of anxieties between the European and the South American. Of the same species after all. It floats not with the weightlessness of enlightenment (though its presence is felt like a possibility wavering on the other side of a thin film) but with the feathery fall of decaying memories, lost learning and nostalgia: culture swallowed by culture. Karamakate's humanity is in constant reckoning with the Gods, deity tarnished by the biological processes of dementia and spite.

To rescue him, there will be a final submission. Embracing the flow of time to transcend it, embracing the ghost of the jungle, embracing the serpent.

"They all became part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river's voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. The river flowed on towards its goal. Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and the relative and all the people he had ever seen... He had often heard all this before, all these numerous voices on the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice... All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life." 

 Herman Hesse, 'Siddhartha'

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