ʻWe live as we dream… alone.ʼ
In Joseph Conradʼs influential novella ʻHeart Of Darknessʼ, Marlowe, the central character recounts his tales from an expedition up the Congo river and deep into the heart of Africa. Anchored somewhere along the river Thames, his words portend a deeper and somewhat infernal meaning to his fellow sailors on deck.
The symbolism of the jungle and the psychology of the unknown has always instilled within us rich connotations of wonderment and awe. Instinctively seduced by itʼs uncultivated beauty– yet repelled at the same time by itʼs archaic barbarism and primitive dominions, the storyteller has weaved a myriad of tales around itʼs unchartered hinterland.
Ciro Guerraʼs third feature film ʻEmbrace Of The Serpentʼ successfully rekindles the magic, and shines new light into the darker corridors of one of cinemaʼs more enigmatic characters… the uninhibited domains of the jungle.
Loosely inspired by the diaries of two explorers who travelled extensively through the Columbian Amazon in search of an elusive medicinal plant, the film traces a seamless tandem between their separate quests within a 40 year period in the earlier half of the 20th century. The linchpin to this story is Karamakate; an Amazonian shaman with the stoicism of a disciplined monk. He is the soul survivor of his people, and he makes it clear from the beginning that the white man is to blame for his forsaken predicament.
As is the case with other notary examples of the genre, the penultimate creative factors here are cinematography and editing. In sharp black and white images, David Gallego soaks all the opulence of the jungle onto Super 35 film format, and the larger image frames put the characters into context within their environment. No less vital to the narrative is the film pacing. Longer takes and fluent camera movement add another layer to the psychology of the film. Descending deeper into the frontiers of the uncharted, the pace adds a meditative glaze over the action.
Let us consider in brief a handful of classic cinema that exemplifies this argument…
In 1975, some 30 years into his career as a filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa took the subject matter offshore for the first time, and shot an ambitious adventure piece in the far east of the Russian wilderness on 70mm film. Based on the memoirs of a lone huntsman and trapper, ʻDersu Uzalaʼ centres itself around the traditional habits of an unlikely protagonist, as his native environment and customs are being increasingly squeezed by the encroachment of modern civilisation.
These themes of colonialisation and the juxtaposition of modern and traditional cultures have been revisited time and again by Werner Herzog. His films ʻAguirre, Wrath Of Godʼ (1972) and ʻFitzcarraldoʼ (1982) use the backdrop of the South American forest to set the tone for the feverish and outlandish, the erratic and the deranged.
The central character in both films is played convincingly by Klaus Kinski. On one hand an armor-clad Spanish conquistador leading a doomed troupe into the dense of the jungle in search of El Dorado, on the other an eccentric rubber baron donning a white suit and attempting to haul a 40 tonne steamship through the forest and over a mountain to create in his words ʻthe great opera of the jungleʼ. In each of these films the jungle is equally immense and just as unforgiving.In the ʻmaking-ofʼ documentary ʻBurden Of Dreamsʼ, when discussing the jungle Herzogʼs interpretation is stark to say the least:
ʻItʼs like a curse weighing on the entire landscape… and whoever goes too deep into this has his share of that curseʼ.
In a similar vein, so too did Francis Ford Coppola use the backdrop of the jungle and the madness of the Vietnam War to stage his epic drama ʻApocalypse Nowʼ in 1979. Setting Joseph Conradʼs ʻHeart Of Darknessʼ story within another context, the film places the maddened character of Kurtz deep in the Cambodian jungle where his isolated existence and haunting memories of carnage have triggered irreversible mental despair.
In short, the jungle as a metaphor is a microcosm of extremes. The same volatile environment that nurtures such diversity of life can just as swiftly manifest itself into a makeshift grave. Within the limits of story, it can evoke personal feelings of conquest, isolation and growth. For the characters who pass through it, itʼs effects are often profoundly spiritual. Should they make it out the other side, the jungle manages to fasten itself to oneʼs psyche.
In the words of Joseph Conrad:
ʻ…while the dream disappears the life continues painfullyʼ.