Watch Out, Kids, But Above All Watch!
Last week I stumbled on a very fine, a very deep movie. Nominated for an Oscar in 2016, "Embrace of the Serpent" is loosely based on the actual life of an Amazonian shaman who, on two occasions forty years apart, led single Western scientists up the great river in search of a powerfully healing and exceedingly rare medicinal plant. The movie is able somehow to place a modern Western viewer into a mindspace where the native culture of the shaman is natural and real, the culture of the scientist hostile and destructive, without being anti-colonialist in a conventional way, without romanticizing the indigenous peoples that it portrays. On the little screen, thanks to our anonymous bureaucrats, it carries the usual insipid warning against being viewed by children, because it portrays "alcohol use" and "smoking." Nothing is said on the other hand about cannibalism.
Rather late in the film, the shaman and the second scientist paddle their dug-out canoe to the shore at a forbidding settlement which, it turns out, has become a colony of native worshippers of "The Messiah," who is another Westerner gone half mad. When the shaman cures his young bride of a usually-fatal skin disease, the Messiah decides that the two newcomers are two of the three Magi, come from the East to celebrate his presence in the world.
We then discover along with the intruders that when the Messiah gets angry, he does not kill any of his misbehaving flock, but rather condemns them to a suicide ritual that leaves them equally dead but lets him evade responsibility. This so infuriates the shaman that he tricks the Messiah and all of his remaining disciples into drinking a potion that may be a poison, or may be a very strong hallucinogen like ayahuasca. The Messiah goes completely mad. He screams at his flock "This is my body! Eat me! ... Eat me! ... Eat me!" And indeed they proceed to eat him alive, off camera of course. This brave perversion of the Eucharist is perhaps the most chilling scene I have watched (or rather heard) on film since, in a tale rolled out in the 1930's, Dr. Moreau, played by Charles Laughton, is carved to pieces by the monstrous hybrids he himself has created by means of vivisection, on the island that gives us the movie's name.
The shaman and the scientist escape the mad colony. They have not become friends, rather men from disparate cultures thrown together by fate, bound together by magic. The shaman's magic empowers him to conjure the real, live spirits of the jaguar and the serpent. The scientist's magic is enclosed in a wooden box that has come along for the ride -- an old gramophone and a single recording, a recording of Haydn's ode to God's powers of creation. The scientist avers to the shaman, bitterly, that he does not believe in God's powers of creation. Just like the scientists of today, he is impervious to magic and to myth. But the shaman knows better.