This is a fascinating film which raises a number of the ‘global film’ questions that we like to explore on this blog. The film is directed by the team of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra who will be familiar to UK audiences because of the wide success of their previous production, The Embrace of the Serpent (2015). The gossip seems to be that the couple have now split up and I wonder how significant it is that Cristina has a joint directorial credit on this film – whereas she was the producer on the previous film. Just as in 2016 when the previous film appeared in ¡Viva!, this was a preview screening and the film will get a UK release through Curzon on 17 May.
There are various ways in which this film could be described in conventional terms and the most popular seems to be as a ‘universal family gangster film’. There is certainly something in that description but it is a little glib to say the least. If I had to try to sum up the film in this way I’d suggest it is something like a cross between Gangs of Wasseypur and a film by Sembène Ousmane or another Senegalese or Malian director with all the rich mix of ideas that such a mash-up suggests. Ciro Guerra in the Press Notes (French via Google Translate) confirms a wish to make a genre film but still retain the exploration of the representation of indigenous peoples from the couples earlier films:
For me, it’s a film noir, a gangster movie. But it can also be both a Western, a Greek tragedy and a tale by Gabriel García Márquez.
Guerra also discusses the idea of ‘myths’ in story telling and sees popular cinema genres as a way to explore these. Later in the Notes Cristina Gallego suggests à propos of discussing the ‘great bonanza’ of the cannabis export to the US and the subsequent drugs wars in the 1970s:
It’s a metaphor for our country, a family tragedy that is also becoming a national tragedy. Speaking of the past, it allows us to better understand where we are today as a country.
The story covers the years 1969-79 and it is set in the peninsula of Guajira, the most northerly part of South America which sticks out into the Caribbean Sea. Wikipedia describes the region nicely:
The scenery of Guajira is very picturesque, with wide desert plains and green, foggy mountains.
The indigenous people of this desert/mountain region are the Wayuu. Under colonial rule, and after, the Wayuu were subject to missionary pressure to convert to Catholicism but in recent times they have been allowed to practise traditional rituals without interference. The Wayuu have always resisted centralised control over their affairs. The film narrative is set at a time when there might be priests around (much as in Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) but they don’t appear in the film. At times it is difficult to believe that this film is set in the 1970s – until we see the Land Rovers and Jeeps. The narrative begins with a meeting of a Wayuu clan in which a young woman, Zaida, who has been confined for a year is brought out to celebrate the moment she has become a woman. She performs a rapid dance with her younger brother and then he is replaced by a stranger, a grown man known as Rapayet. By taking a role in the dance Rapayet (who is also Wayuu) has suggested he is interested in marriage. But this requires a ritual proposal and Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino is an accepted negotiator. A bride price/dowry is agreed in the form of goats, cattle and necklaces. So far, so traditional. For us as the audience, the inciting incident is a chance observation by Rapayet and his business partner of a trio of Americans who we learn are associated with the ‘Peace Corps’ and who are distributing anti-Communist propaganda in the form of playing cards. They are also on the lookout for marijuana for which they can pay in US dollars. Immediately we know that tradition has been undermined by modernity, capitalism and American culture. Rapayet will buy the crops grown by his cousin in the mountains and the Wayuu clans will grow rich.
I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Instead I’ll just outline one or two of the other elements. The bride’s mother Úrsula turns out to be some form of spirit messenger who foresees the tragic events ahead (often via the appearance of certain birds – hence the title). She is also a formidable leader of her clan – to which Rapayet has now pledged himself. What follows is visually dominated by the stark contrast between the semi-desert lands where Úrsula’s clan are settled and the lush tropical hillsides where Aníbal, Rapayet’s cousin, has his house and fields. The second important element of the narrative is the deadly way in which the greed of criminal capitalist enterprise will join with/poison the traditional relationships between clans. This means that once a dispute begins it is almost impossible to end it peaceably. The narrative resolution which I won’t describe does return us to the use of traditional storytelling, although sadly it is too late to compensate for all the damage that has been done.
In all the carnage of the second half of the film, the Colombian police appear fleetingly and only to take their cut of the drugs business. Now, several days after the screening, I’ve only just realised that the time period in the second half of the 1970s was a violent time in much of South America and the period of the first two organised crime groups involved in the Colombian drugs business (although by this time it was cocaine rather than marijuana that was being exported to North America). The internal wars in Colombia (which involved both the drugs barons and leftist guerrillas) don’t appear in the narrative which seems to be almost timeless and also completely cut off from the rest of the region. It’s true that the peninsula is the most isolated part of Colombia, but it still feels odd.
The film’s casting does appear to have posed some problems for the filmmakers. I assumed that the largest proportion of the Colombian population was, as in many Latin American countries, mestizo – the result of inter-marriage between European colonists/settlers/migrants and indigenous peoples. This appears to be the case but, as in Mexico, there are different ways of estimating and defining the proportion of mestizos and that of ‘Europeans’. In most of Colombia, the indigenous populations are relatively small except in the peninsula and some border regions of the south. African-Colombians tend to be concentrated in the Caribbean coastal regions. While some of the actors did appear to be indigenous and possibly Wayuu, others were more European in appearance. The Wayuu use the word alijuna which I understand to simply mean ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ – i.e. ‘not Wayuu’. It was this that I found a little confusing and I wasn’t sure if ‘marrying out’ meant being cast out of the community. My concern is that the principal characters (who are all professional actors) appear more ‘European’ than indigenous (though the Press Notes reveal that both Carmiña Martínez and Jose Acosta have Wayuu roots in the family histories). The only African-Colombian character of note, Rapayet’s business partner Moisés, is a loud and aggressive character and I assume that his treatment by the Wayuu is more to do with his personal characteristics than any racial prejudice. The film doesn’t really clarify any doubts about this.
I’m left wondering what I made of the film. Part of me is worried that the genre conventions of a clan war dominate the film too much and don’t allow enough of the unique geography and sociology/ethnography of the region to be fully appreciated (and it must have been a very difficult production to shoot). I fear the ‘City of God‘ syndrome and the over-promotion of the gangster genre so that the film becomes a cult hit based on its genre qualities. On the other hand perhaps there is enough suggestion about traditions and rituals of the Wayuu and the ‘spirituality’ of Úrsula and her family to keep us interested in the cultural questions. The filmmakers themselves have positive reasons for making the film this way and perhaps they are reaching a local audience? It’s what happens in markets like the UK that worries me. Curzon as a distributor used to be quite good with films like this, making available press materials. This time there is relatively little I can find (but perhaps more will appear before the actual release?). At the moment, the language of the film is given as ‘Spanish’ – but much of the dialogue is actually in the local Wayuu language.
I found watching the film was a very intense experience with the dramatic landscapes photographed by David Gallego. Gallego photographed The Embrace of the Serpent for the same filmmakers, but he was also responsible for the photography on I Am Not a Witch (2017) which would have taken him to Zambia, so perhaps my suggestion of an African feel about some images is not too outlandish? I enjoyed the music by Leo Heiblum and the sound design by Carlos García. Both are very strong in eliciting an emotional response and the film worked very well in the big screen in HOME’s Cinema 1. When it comes out, find the biggest screen you can.
This screening was listed as a ‘Preview’ and the film is to be released in the UK in June by Peccadillo Pictures. It’s a shame that the impact of The Pearl Button (Chile 2015) will have diminished a little by then because the two films have much in common and I would urge you to see both. The story of the havoc that European mercantilism, colonialism, capitalism and imperialism have wreaked on the indigenous peoples of Latin America is one that needs to be told and these are two fine examples of how to do it in a sensitive but always engaging way.
The Embrace of the Serpent is a fictional story but one closely based on two diaries/documentary accounts by a European and a North American making journeys into the Upper Amazon region in the first half of the 20th century. The film is presented in Black and White ‘Scope (2.35:1) with a short colour sequence towards the end. This formal decision immediately sets up meanings for different audiences. For older audiences it may take us back to the documentaries of our childhood when Black and White meant ‘realism’. For younger audiences it might mean ‘artistry’ – or artistic pretension. Personally, I forgot about it very quickly – though I did think about a film like Tabu (Portugal-Ger-Braz-Fra 2012) which raises some of the same kinds of questions. The film was shot on 35mm and the director maintains that the film camera is more robust than a digital camera under extreme conditions – a reminder that Theeb, filmed in the desert conditions of South Jordan also utilised film (and both films were nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar this year). Film also acts to discipline the filmmaker when two takes is the maximum for each shot, presumably because of cost and the physical labour of carrying more cans of film. The only downside is that there is only one film lab for 35mm in South America – and it’s in Argentina. (For more discussion on this go to the Cineaste interview.)
The film is set mainly in Colombia on the rivers that flow into the Amazon in the Vaupés region of Colombian Amazonia. There is still debate as to where the Amazon begins and national borders must be fairly arbitrary in this region where Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet. The Venezuelan border is to the North East. The first meeting between a German botanist and an Amazonian shaman Karamakate is around 1910. The shaman believes himself to be the last survivor of a tribe wiped out through contact with ‘whites’. He is hostile towards the European and his assistant, a local man who the European has bought out of slavery on a rubber plantation. The shaman is persuaded to help in the search for a rare plant only because the European says that there are more of the shaman‘s people upstream. The European is sick but the shaman can temporarily ‘cure’ him. A full recovery is only possible if they find the yakruna plant (a fictional epiphyte that grows on rubber trees and is a source of hallucinogenic substances). The second story involves the same shaman thirty years on, still on his own but now less aggressively hostile and accepting that he has lost many of his memories of his people. He agrees to help an American scientist/traveller search for the same plant – although the American’s reasons for his search seem less clear (at one point he seems to be looking for new rubber tree varieties). The film’s director and co-writer Ciro Guerra has decided to tell the two stories in parallel so that the narrative switches from one to the other, almost at will. The effect is that it is difficult without the film actually in front of me to remember which incident relates to which story. The reason for structuring the film in this way is to represent the indigenous peoples’ way of seeing the world and telling a story. Guerra discovered that the two whites who wrote their diaries were perceived to be the same character and that stories didn’t need to be told in a linear fashion.
Guerra maintains that the film is intended to allow the indigenous peoples of the region to tell their story and to represent history as they see it. The region suffered very badly from the ‘rubber boom’ in the last quarter of the 19th century and today the region still has no roads, but is in danger of exploitation from mining as well as coca cultivation and other ‘plantation’ practices. As well as the capitalist exploiters, other agencies such as the Catholic Church are responsible for the suffering of the local people. Guerra discusses the various issues in the press notes downloadable from the US distributor Oscilloscope and in the Cineaste interview.
This is certainly an important film but it might be approached in different ways by different audiences. In one sense it is a genuine ‘art film’, beautiful to look at with an unconventional narrative and no distinct ending/resolution. (I realise I’ve already forgotten how it ends, but I don’t think that matters.) Could it be seen as an art film with the possibility that audiences might miss the politics? Perhaps for some it will be primarily ‘exotic’ or ‘ethnographic’? Others may assume a generic perspective, expecting a trip upstream to be informed by Conrad and therefore a voyage into the ‘Heart of Darkness’. It’s also a reminder of the hallucinogenic/psychedelic culture, mainly associated with the 1960s counter-culture and writers such as Carlos Castaneda. I’m most taken by the ecological discourse and the critique of capitalism and organised religion.
The film’s title refers to the ‘founding myth’ of the peoples of the Amazon basin. Here’s the director on the mythology (from the Cineaste interview):
In Amazonian mythology, extraterrestrial beings descended from the Milky Way, journeying to the earth on a gigantic anaconda snake. They landed in the ocean and travelled into the Amazon, stopping at communities where people existed, leaving these pilots behind who would explain to each community the rules of how to live on earth: how to harvest, fish, and hunt. Then they regrouped and went back to the Milky Way, leaving behind the anaconda, which became the river. The wrinkled skin of the serpent became the waterfalls.
They also left behind a few presents, including coca, the sacred plant; tobacco, which is also another kind of sacred plant; and yagé, the equivalent of ayahuasca, which is what you use to communicate with them in case you have a question or a doubt about how to exist in the world. When you use yagé, the serpent descends again from the Milky Way and embraces you. That embrace takes you to faraway places; to the beginning where life doesn’t even exist; to a place where you can see the world in a different way. I hope that’s what the film means to the audience.
I’m looking forward to watching the film again and I’m hoping for a successful UK theatrical release.
Writer-director Roberto Flores Prieto gave a great performance (in English) in the Q&A following the screening of his film. He told us a great deal about the background to the film and what motivated him to make it. He was at ¡Viva! last year as well and he obviously feels at home in Manchester (I’m tempted to make a joke about rain, but more of that later).
Roberto told us that he liked the title simply as a phrase. If it has a link to the film’s narrative it is because it refers to a certain type of audio signal picked up on the radios and TVs repaired by Luis, a man in late middle age who lives on his own. Early in the film we meet him in a bar where he appears to succumb to the siren call of a bar girl and the couple then retire to a run-down hotel. A little later we meet Carmen (Mabel Pizarro), a woman in her early fifties who cleans the rooms in the hotel and occasionally sits at the reception desk. She lives on her own in the hotel and begins a tentative pursuit of Luis (who she has presumably known for some time since he lives locally and advertises his repair business).
Without the background about the city of Barranquilla before the screening I didn’t really get all the nuances of the film’s narrative. The set-up is very simple. There are just a handful of main locations, Luis’s room, the hotel, the bar and the streets between the three. Carmen visits a Chinese takeaway and a hairdresser and Luis delivers/picks up some items for repair. Not a great deal happens ‘plot-wise’ and the film is 110 minutes long. However, in its exploration of film language in terms of cinematography, costume, set design and use of sound and music, the film is rich in meanings. (The look of the film is inspired by the American painter Edward Hopper.) Prieto wants to spend time with his two central characters. He wants us to understand what they feel and to think about their responses. These two people are attracted to each other for a variety of reasons but they are sensitive and wary about allowing someone else into their lives. They might be easily hurt. I won’t spoil the story so I’ll simply point out that this isn’t a Hollywood narrative.
Back to the rain: Barranquilla is on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and it rains a lot in season. Prieto told us that the city (the third largest in the country), is ‘looked down on’ from Bogota but the director lives there and he was determined to use it as a not just a location but almost as a character. The rain is so heavy that in the old parts of the city, the roads become fast-running streams. These are dangerous, so in the symbolism of the melodrama, rain doesn’t only signify ‘sexual release’, but also the danger of sexual congress/relationship. I realised a little after the screening that in several different ways, Ruido Rosa resembles Wong Kar-Wai’s classic In the Mood For Love. Certainly the dark streets, the rain and the music/costumes are important in both films. So too is the question of exile/migration. In this case it is Carmen who has long dreamed of travelling to New York. Will she decide to stay with Luis or to finally join the other 5 million Colombians living abroad? How will Luis deal with Carmen’s desire to leave? These are the important questions that give an edge to the relationship between the two.
Ruido Rosa is a classic ‘meller’, but it is also very funny at times – in certain carefully presented deadpan scenes e.g. when Carmen and a colleague at the hotel solemnly chomp on Chinese take-away meals and in a neighbourhood cinema when we watch Luis and Carmen but listen to hilarious versions of dialogue from typical Hollywood genre films (all provided by the director). Carmen goes to the cinema to practise English, repeating the lines she hears. Music is integral to the film and I enjoyed it very much. At one point we join Luis and Carmen in a local bar with live music from a trio (?). Like much of the film, this sequence reminded me of old Havana and of Cuban cinema. Afterwards I noted that Roberto Flores Prieto had studied at the International Film School in Cuba. This little bar scene also reminded me of the wonderful sequence in the Claire Denis film 35 rhums which includes the characters dancing to a version of ‘Siboney’.
In the end the sense of a love story told almost in defiance of Hollywood convention is what defines Ruido Rosa. The shooting was completed in just three and a half weeks. The two principals are not ‘stars’ but they have experience, Roosevel Gonzalez as a dancer and Mabel Pizarro as a drama teacher. Director, writers and crew seem to be on the same wavelength – making something that requires patience to watch but which is ultimately rewarding. Prieto told us that in Colombia cinephiles no longer go to the multiplexes but prefer to watch films at home on DVD and download. But the success of Ruido Rosa at festivals does seem to have helped it get more screenings at home (see the film’s Facebook page) and that must be good. I look forward to seeing a Roberto Flores Prieto film in Manchester again.
After the disappointment of El árbol, it was a relief to turn to the more traditional pleasures of Los colores de la montaña. The colours in question are provided by the crayons with which the central character, 9 year-old Manuel, draws the landscapes around his mountain home in the Pradera region of Colombia. Unfortunately, Pradera is one of the parts of the country where the FARC guerrillas have been active – and where the Colombian security forces attempt to hunt them down (along with any collaborators amongst the local population).
Manuel has a second passion – football. His is the old battered football that the local boys use and he plays in goal. His two friends are the seemingly older and more worldly Julián and Poca Luz, an albino boy with weak eyesight and poor co-ordination. Manuel is oblivious of both the presence of the soldiers and guerrillas in the area – and of the effects stress in his parents’ troubled relationship. His father is under pressure to go to meetings organised by the guerrillas and his mother wants them to leave the area altogether. When his father buys him a new football Manuel is delighted but then frustrated when the ball lands in a patch of ground that turns out to have been mined. The boys are banned from trying to retrieve it. But these are small boys with determination.
From this material, writer-director Carlos César Arbeláez has fashioned an engrossing tale that plays out in two strands. He coaxes remarkable performances from the three boys and takes us back to universal stories of childhood and at the same time exposes the horrors of living in what is in effect a warzone where the local smallholders have an impossible task in staying on the right side of both guerrillas and security forces. Almost bridging the worlds of the children and the adults is a third strand concerning the arrival of a new and enthusiastic teacher for the village school. Her resolve is going to be tested by the falling school roll as families leave the village and the pressure mounts. What makes the film interesting, I think, for film students is the symbolic role of the ‘football in the minefield’ – the passion and the cancer of Colombian society – and the focus on the school.
In many ways this could be a film for children since they lead the central narrative, but some of the scenes of brutality and the sheer terror of the boys approaching the ball in the minefield perhaps means that it is not suitable for younger children. !Viva¡ gave the film an advisory 12A Certificate.
The director has a background in documentary and this is his first feature. The documentary background is clear in the presentation of the landscape and the routines of the village community. Most of the actors are non-professionals from the region. Arbeláez cites Iranian Cinema and directors such as Truffaut and Louis Malle as inspirations. There is a press pack and other material available via this link to World Cinema Day organised by Global Studies at the University of Wisconsin which is using the film for an education event. !Viva¡ included an education event for students taking Spanish GCSE. Kudos to them for making use of the opportunity. I hope a UK distributor takes note because this is certainly the kind of film that should be available for education work over here.
The subtitled trailer gives a good indication of the pleasures of the film: