Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Embrace of The Serpent and City of Gold - NZFF Review

Embrace of The Serpent and City of Gold - NZFF Review

Madness, obsession and a drive to document link these two titles from the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Ciro Guerra's Embrace of The Serpent, shot lusciously in black and white, centres around two timelines and two explorers and a shaman as they make their way through the Amazonian jungle. The first sees the young Shaman Karmakate alone in the jungle, the last of his race approached by a European explorer and his local charge. Imploring them to help locate the mythical yakruna plant to cure the ailing explorer Karmakate agrees to go with them in their search.

So, deep into the jungle the trio goes, and at the same time Guerra employs a narrative trick that sees us flitting to later in Karmakate's life where he's searching for the plant with another traveller. To reveal more would be to spoil the film, but even that implies there's some major twists and plot shockers ahead - there's simply not, more that revealing deeper information about Guerra's film is to rob it of its richness which transpires on the screen.

Occasional humour pervades the piece and watching one of the Europeans plead with a tribe leader to return his compass flips normal reasoning on its head, a solid reminder that cultures and customs remain wiped clean by history.

Based on actual trips by ethnographers Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes, the film serves as a document to the times, to tribes lost to history and stands as a testament to the brutality man wroughts under the umbrella of civilisation.

Rubber plantations scatter the Amazon; the scars within the trees remind us that civilisation cuts deep and also hints at the terror the natives must have felt under the rubber barons. Equally, the Christian centre the trio stumble on presents a religion that terrorises as its MO rather than helping propagate a world of love. Both show the outside world to be nothing more than a curse on the Amazon and you'd be hard-pressed to leave with thoughts to the contrary.

Beautifully and evocatively shot, Embrace of the Serpent is a haunting film, a reminder that the festival can serve up a treat under the most auspicious of disguises.

Serving up is certainly high on City of Gold's agenda.

This gentle doco from director Laura Gabbert tantalises us with the notion of a piece about food critic Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer prize winning writer who's more at home among the street food than the swanky restaurants.

But what actually transpires is a long love letter to Los Angeles throughout the years, where Gold live, and to the people who give the food their love and serve to the man who loves their food.

With a few details about Gold scattered throughout, this piece keeps on the right side of hagiography with various colleagues and compadres of the scene espousing the virtues of Gold, who comes replete with long shaggy white hair. One even laments the fact they had discovered an eaterie which they were determined to keep secret but that ambition was foiled by Gold's review pinned up in the corner.

Along the journey, and in among the tantalising dishes served up by various smaller restaurants, Gold himself emerges as a critic of yore. There's very brief discussion of the place of the critic in this internet age and the value of opinion when it's blessed with experience (a thread I'm always, understandably, interested in) but this is really a piece about Los Angeles and the rich melting pot that lies within.

City of Gold is a document and snapshot of culinary history guaranteed to titillate and salivate, but it also throws into the mix a meshing and dollop of LA lifestyle throughout the years. Culturally it may enlighten, but what it will also do for LA, as well as the debate over the place of food critic, is to put plenty of eateries and treasures on the map that hitherto have remained hidden.

And at the end of the day, isn't that the job of the critic?

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