As a young girl, I wanted nothing more than to be a witch. Beyond the cheeky nose twitchers of family hour television lived my cinema witch, the embodiment of a certain kind of feminine power that I didn’t quite understand but wanted to be part of nonetheless. Like for so many girls in the 90’s, The Craft became a sort of manifesto. Surrounded by tornado candles, we chanted “light as a feather, stiff as a board” at our slumber parties, imagining ourselves as part of a secret sisterhood. For the first time, we had something that the boys couldn’t steal.
That’s not to say the witch, especially as represented by cinema, is an entirely liberating symbol. Often, she must either slip around in the shadows or stifle her powers into a mundane domestic reality, using her magic to stir batter. And love, if it is be had, comes as a great sacrifice. “Love is stronger than witchcraft,” Veronica Lake assures her lover before sealing her wizard father into a bottle of liquor in I Married a Witch. What we wouldn’t do to have our own family, to not have to live a loveless life obscured in a rotting tree or dusty spell book.
Luckily, over the next couple of weeks, there are plenty of discussions to be had over the witch’s place in society thanks to BAMcinématek’s program Witches’ Brew (running Feb 16—Feb29). In celebration of Robert Eggers’ chilling directorial debut, The Witch, BAM will be screening “18 tales of female empowerment of the supernatural kind.” The series represents a variety of witches, from Kenny Ortega’s broomstick flyers in Hocus Pocus to Mario Bava’s sumptuous revenge seeker in Black Sunday. While it’s too late to see the silent and Satanic Häxan, there’s still time to catch Dario Argento’s ballet of gore, Suspiria (Feb 20). And of course, one would be remiss to skip out on Richard Quine’s Bell, Book and Candle (Feb 29), which is a perfect mix of love, literature, and magic (and the loss thereof).
For all its reverence in the history books, the Amazon rainforest as a setting for a Hollywood movie typically exists with an opacity and mystique that lends itself to quests for secret treasure, searches for magical or spiritual transcendence, or conflicts with heathens and cannibals. In temporarily leaving Western civilization, the white protagonist will have to overcome the presumed danger therein, sidestepping threats posed by Mother Nature and a lack of Christianity.
On the surface Embrace of the Serpent looks that way too. Two white explorers in search of a sacred healing plant experience a cultural clash in meeting dangerous men and animals along the Columbian Amazon. While going back and forth between each explorer’s account, which take place 30 years apart, and telling the whole story through the eyes of their skeptical shaman guide, the film chronicles the appalling change of the region over time.
Writer-director Ciro Guerra confronts the tragic history of the region while jumping between the explorers’ roughly identical routes. Theo (loosely based on German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg) makes his journey with the Western-clothed native, Manduca, and the shaman, Karamakate, who is the last of a tribe killed off by the rubber barons. Decades later, Evan (loosely based on American biologist Richard Evans Schultes) travels with an older Karamakate, who has become a broken man in his survivor’s remorse.
Each expedition, in a nod to Heart of Darkness, contains quiet moments of peaceful reflection contrasted with terrifying sequences of violence, illustrating the abuse, enslavement, and murder of indigenous people enacted by white settlers along the Amazon in the early 20th century. The scene of a Spanish missionary’s indoctrination of a group of orphan boys provides a twisted version of a shepherd tending to his flock. The horror culminates in a scene at a mission where a cult-like congregation follows a self-proclaimed white messiah to extreme ends.
As the film’s fulcrum, Karamakate paces the story with his insights, actions, and presence, as he grapples with his own anger, loneliness, and grief. Through the lens of Western culture, he seems intriguingly exotic and foreign, like a tribal man on the cover of National Geographic. In the context of the colossal sadness of genocide, religious hypocrisy, and social injustice, Karamakate feels like a powerful image of a shell of a man. As the last remnant of a culture, he is a portrait of alienation even in his homeland, and to look at him is to take a glimpse at everything that was lost.
Film Forum will screen Embrace of the Serpent through March 1. This is the first Columbian film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.