I didn’t have the best phone connection with Ciro Guerra when we spoke on February 6, 2016, but that didn’t affect the quality of what he had to say about his sublime and savage film, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT.
We started with why he chose black and white rather than color for his film set in the Amazonia rain forest, and moved on to recreating that rain forest as the European explorers of 1909 and 1949 would have seen it. I also asked him to talk about the unique view his film takes when it came to depicting two cultures meeting, a view that eschewed condescension or smugness. Instead, Guerra insisted on showing a reverence for knowledge, and a respect for ancestors, as well as serendipitously preserving indigenous languages on film that are fast disappearing from the planet.
We finished up with him giving me the backstory on one of my favorite scenes, one which shows the dissonance of world views between the indigenous people and the Europeans who have come to study and to exploit them, and with his belief that the jungle had blessed his enterprise.
His film uses the diaries of two European explorers who visited the Amazon in the first half of the 20th century as a starting point for a profound meditation on culture, spirituality, and our place in the cosmos. Made on location, the journeys that the two men make give us a glimpse of peoples and languages that are either gone entirely, or are on the verge of extinction as they search for a mythical herb that can change the world. It also considers exploitation, both the brutal form it took on the rubber plantations, and the perhaps more insidious form of infantilism that seemingly kind Europeans sought to impose on the indigenous tribes they encountered. Guerra’s previous work includes The Wind Journeys (2009) and La Sombra del Caminante (2004).