Director Ciro Guerra describes Embrace of the Serpent as ‘a journey into the unknown’ and knowledge is certainly a power that is fiercely coveted in this hallucinatory trip into the Colombian Amazon. The complex relationships between the rainforest’s indigenous tribes and the outsiders that often seek to exploit them are presented in a sublime monochrome that picks out every leaf and every ripple of the river. It is a brutal, ruthless description of cultures clashing with inevitable violence and also a meditative, transcendental search for enlightenment.
The film is inspired by the travel diaries of two twentieth-century explorers and scientists who each undertook voyages into the Amazon to study and record its native cultures, people, plants and animals. Their accounts have each been dramatized to create an intricate dual narrative and although the pair’s trips into the rainforest are separated by decades they share one ultimate goal, to find the elusive, mythical yakruna flower. The German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) needs the flower to cure himself of a debilitating illness while the American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) is interested in it from an academic perspective. Linking the two narratives is Karamakate (played by Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar), a shaman who lives alone believing he is the last of his tribe and who guides both of the explorers through the rainforest. When he finds out from Theodor that some of his tribe may still be alive Karamakate agrees to lead him to the yakruna in the hope of also finding his people. Many years later when Schultes turns up seeking the same plant it is out of a desire to regain lost knowledge that Karamakate becomes his guide.
Karamakate proves to be a charismatic figure. His years of isolation have inured him to the corruptive white influence so when Theodor initially lands at his feet requiring help he is naturally reluctant. Of all the journeys Karamakate’s is the most transitive. He begins the film as a shadow of the forest, as much a part of its terrain as the trees or the river. By the end he is mysteriously subsumed into the landscape itself in some sort of naturalistic moment of transcendence. He is the anchor in time and space, a tangible link between two journeys separated by decades, a quester of lost knowledge and spiritual enlightenment and a manipulator of dreams and the subconscious. Despite all of their learning Theodor and Schultes seem naive in his company, for they cannot approach the same level of awareness as Karamakate. His is not the knowledge of education but the knowledge of living.
Despite this Theodor assumes that he knows what is best for the people who call the forest their home. He believes he cannot leave his compass with them as it would jeopardise the knowledge they currently use to navigate, which he fears will be lost if they no longer need it. Karamakate challenges his position, however, asking him what authority gives him the right to deny the knowledge of development to these people. From Karamakate’s perspective, Theodor at this point places himself in the same position as the white men who have brought the lash to tribes like his. While Theodor thinks he’s doing the people a favour by denying them this knowledge he’s actually subjugating them in a more subtle way.
The film transitions smoothly between the two narratives, almost like a before-and-after where memories trigger leaps back in time and dreams speculate on what might be. There are certain points of reference between the two journeys, Karamakate for one, but also various places along the river where earlier steps are retraced. The most significant of these is a Catholic mission which in the earlier story is home to many indigenous children who are being ‘saved’ by a fiercely punitive friar. This is one of the most distressing moments for Karamakate as he sees first-hand how outside influences have corrupted his home and his people. When he revisits the mission many years later with Schultes those same boys and girls have now grown up and are in thrall to an enigmatic, self-proclaimed Messiah who wears a crown of thorns and who overshadows the old priest’s brutality with his punishments. He is a warped New Testament saviour yet his flagellant, paganistic followers speak to a more primal form of worship, far beyond the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament. Compassion and forgiveness are in short supply and Karamakate is afforded the opportunity for his own form of retribution.
Ciro Guerra wrote the screenplay for Embrace of the Serpent over four years and spent much time with many of the tribes native to the Colombian Amazon during the film’s production. Antonio Bolivar and Nilbio Torres are both native to the region and the former acted as interpreter of many of the Amazonian languages used in the film. Such diligence and respect for the subject shows in the sensitivity afforded the indigenous people on camera and in the significance of Karamakate’s role. The view isn’t of an outsider’s perspective on Amazonian cultures but of those cultures looking out upon the wider world, witnessing its incursion upon their way of life. It is unique in this way. At one point Karamakate is concerned when he sees a framed photograph of himself among Theodore’s belongings; he believes it is his chullachaqui, a hollow copy of himself that wanders the jungle looking for someone to deceive. Every person is said to have one but Karamakate worries that Theodore wishes to show his to the world. Although Theodore manages to placate him, in a way Karamakate is right. It is a hollow picture, one which captures the appearance of the man but nothing more. It cannot reflect the wholeness of Karamakate’s identity or, by extension, the intricacies and complexities of Amazonian customs and social structures. It reduces him to a specimen to be catalogued and exhibited which is why, despite his noble intentions, Theodore is no more progressive in his regard of these people than the Colombians who bind them to slavery in rubber farms.
This all takes place in a landscape that is consistently, incredibly shot but which is not given precedence over its inhabitants. It is the people of Embrace of the Serpent which prove to be its most engaging subjects. It is both mournful, as it considers the threat to these cultures, yet celebratory in its regard of their virtues. In its search for enlightenment it shakes the dreams from our subconscious and questions what knowledge is held there. Karamakate seems to know, so watch him closely as he shows you.
Original title: El abrazo de la serpiente
Country: Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina
Language: Spanish, Portuguese, German, English, Latin, various Amazonian
Director: Ciro Guerra
Writer: Ciro Guerra, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
Starring: Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar
Runtime: 125 minutes