Shaman’s van­ish­ing world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

(M) The fifth in­stal­ment of the Bourne fran­chise, with Os­car nom­i­nee Paul Green­grass di­rect­ing a 24-carat movie star in Matt Da­mon, is a firstrate ac­tion-thriller, but first I want to talk about the vis­ually and emo­tion­ally stun­ning Colom­bian film Em­brace of the Ser­pent, which will re­ceive less PR but is just as good.

The snake of the ti­tle slides into the imag­i­na­tion at times, in­clud­ing in the pre-ti­tles se­quence. A mother snake, jaws agape, writhes along­side its just-born young. Of course the em­brace of a snake can be lethal too. “The jun­gle is frag­ile,” says the main char­ac­ter, Kara­makate, a bit later on. “If you at­tack her she strikes back.”

The set­ting is Ama­zo­nian Colom­bia. Kara­makate is a shaman and said to be the only sur­vivor of his tribe. We meet him in two life­times: as a beau­ti­ful, mus­cu­lar, head­strong young man (Nil­bio Torres, who brings strength, in­tel­li­gence and com­plex­ity to the role); and as an older, more for­get­ful but per­haps wiser man (An­to­nio Bo­li­var, who is also ex­cel­lent).

On both oc­ca­sions, he as­sists a white sci­en­tist-ex­plorer: Ger­man eth­nol­o­gist Theodor Koch-Grun­berg in 1909; and Amer­i­can bi­ol­o­gist Richard Evans Schultes in 1940.

The film draws on the diaries of these re­al­life ex­plor­ers. Both are search­ing for the yakruna, a sa­cred plant that is said to have heal­ing pow­ers. The Amer­i­can is also fol­low­ing the foot­steps and thoughts of his Euro­pean pre­de­ces­sor, who posthu­mously pub­lished a book about his ar­du­ous ad­ven­ture. He may also have ul­te­rior, more ma­te­rial mo­tives, with World War II rag­ing in the dis­tance.

Em­brace of the Ser­pent is the third fea­ture film of young Colom­bian di­rec­tor and screen­writer Ciro Guerra. It was filmed in the Ama­zo­nian re­gion of his coun­try, with cin­e­matog­ra­pher David Gal­lego cap­tur­ing the beauty and ter­ror of the un­tamed — and ter­ri­bly tamed — jun­gle in strik­ing black and white. Last year the film be­came the first Colom­bian con­tender for the best for­eign lan­guage film Os­car, though the prize went to Hun­gary for the Auschwitz drama Son of Saul.

In one sense, this is a straight­for­ward story. We fol­low the sep­a­rate but re­lated ex­pe­di­tions of Koch-Grun­berg (Jan Bi­jvoet) and Schultes (Bri­onne Davis). Koch-Grun­berg is des­per­ately ill when we, and Kara­makate, first meet him. He’s in a ca­noe, helped by Man­d­uca (Yauenku Migue), a young man he saved from en­slave­ment on a rub­ber plan­ta­tion. “Go away,” are the first words we hear from the proud and soli­tary Kara­makate. Then to his coun­try­man: “I am not like you. I do not help the whites.”

But he does. He guides the Ger­man to the only site where the yakruna still ex­ists. Decades later, he does the same for the Amer­i­can.

Both jour­neys are full of mo­ments that are won­der­ful to see and mo­ments that are hard to look at. Guerra’s de­pic­tion of the coloni­sa­tion of the Ama­zon, es­pe­cially via the rub­ber trade, is sub­tle but dev­as­tat­ing. His take on the im­pact of Western re­li­gion is less sub­tle but still pow­er­ful.

First there is a brutal pri­est, next there is a white “mes­siah”. The lit­tle kids who were whipped by the first have be­come the brain­washed and brutal fol­low­ers of the sec­ond.

There is hu­mour too in this in­ter­sec­tion of worlds of re­al­ity and myth. Kara­makate and Ja­son Man­d­uca have their dis­agree­ments, but their shared laugh­ter over Koch-Gun­berg’s let­ter to his wife — all this fuss over a woman! — is a joy to watch, even if you don’t agree with them.

There are also ab­sorb­ing thoughts about the na­ture of in­tel­li­gence. The First World may have lots of “things”, as Kara­makate calls the suit­cases he de­mands be jet­ti­soned, but it has de­stroyed the jun­gle and the peo­ple who called it home. Yet Kara­makate’s han­dling of books he can’t read, or classical music he has never heard be­fore, shows he is a sen­si­tive man.

There is a won­der­ful scene where Kara­makate asks Schultes how many sides a river has. The Amer­i­can thinks two. When Koch-Grun­berg is an­noyed that na­tives have stolen his com­pass, and so will lose their sun and stars sense of nav­i­ga­tion, Kara­makate says, “You can­not for­bid them to learn. Knowl­edge be­longs to all men.”

Per­haps he came to such thoughts on his own, or per­haps he did so af­ter brave Man­d­uca ex­plained why he wanted to help the white men. They are teach­ers, he ex­plains, and only through them will all white men learn about their peo­ple, their home, their coun­try.

“It will be the end of us if whites don’t learn. It will be the end of ev­ery­thing.” Ev­ery­thing is ex­actly what a cer­tain CIA as­sas­sin is starting to re­mem­ber in Ja­son Bourne.

Bourne (Da­mon), who dis­ap­peared at the end of The Bourne Ul­ti­ma­tum (2007), has sud­denly resur­faced. What’s more, he is re­cov­er­ing from the am­ne­sia in­flicted on him and wants to find out more about his past, par­tic­u­larly what hap­pened to his fa­ther, who died in Beirut.

Green­grass, Os­car nom­i­nated for United 93 in 2006, has di­rected three of the five Bourne films and brings us up-to-date with an ef­fec­tive pre-ti­tles flash­back that shows Bourne as a highly trained CIA killer. “You made your­self who you are,” he is told.

We cut to the Greek-Al­ba­nian bor­der, where Bourne is earn­ing a crust as a street­fighter. Da­mon pumped up for the role and looks in­vin­ci­ble, but Green­grass clev­erly uses this bareknuck­led plot twist only a few times. The real story is Bourne’s re­turn and his search for the truth. Con­nected with this is a hack­ing of the CIA’s com­puter net­work, one that “could be worse than Snow­den”. Bourne may be in­volved.

CIA di­rec­tor Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) wants Bourne elim­i­nated: “We cut the head of this thing.” The job falls to a CIA “as­set” (which is what Bourne used to be), who is told to “close your ac­count in Rome”, which he does with a few close-range shots.

The as­set is played by mag­nif­i­cent French ac­tor Vin­cent Cas­sel, who brings das­tardly, ded­i­cated depth to this bad guy — or good guy, de­pend­ing on where you stand. So does Da­mon, who has reached an age where life shows on his face, which we see in close up through Barry Ack­royd’s fine cam­er­a­work, which is lav­ish on chase scenes and in­ti­mate on per­sonal ones.

Just where CIA agent Heather Lee (Ali­cia Vikan­der) stands is an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. She should be out to stop Bourne and help her boss, but her be­hav­iour sug­gests oth­er­wise. And is the CIA boss bad or good or some­where in be­tween? Rel­e­vant ques­tions for our times.

This is an in­tel­li­gent ac­tion film from start to fin­ish. There are spec­tac­u­lar scenes through­out, such as when Bourne and ac­com­plice Nicky Par­sons (Ju­lia Stiles) are flee­ing through an Athens seething with vi­o­lent protests. The end­ing is sen­sa­tional. If like many peo­ple you are glad Da­mon is back as Ja­son Bourne, you will be even glad­der af­ter see­ing this.

Nil­bio Torres, main, as the young Kara­makate in Em­brace of the Ser­pent; An­to­nio Bo­li­var, inset, as his older self; Matt Da­mon in Bourne, left

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