“In this journey he must find out, in solitude and silence, who he truly is”
In his 2015 Colombian adventure drama Embrace of the Serpent (Spanish: El Albrazo de la Serpiente), Ciro Guerra writes and directs a cinematic journey down the Amazon basin, plunging into its well-hidden secrets, much like Werner Herzog in his epic adventure Fitzcarraldo (1982). Unsurprisingly, the Colombian-Argentinian-Venezuelian co-production offers more than an exotic depiction of the jungle, weaving its history with that of mankind.
The film draws inspiration from the actual journals of German ethnologist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg, as well as the American biologist and ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. A fictional story is spun around them, gradually unveiling the clash between the human ego and the ageless powers of nature. It brings the extensive and violent holocaust of the indigenous Amazon tribes to the foreground, and scolds the degradation of religion and morality through distorted images of the divine, as well as human greed. Despite giving in to the temptation of overanalysis, Embrace of the Serpent succeeds in refraining from reaching any moralistic conclusions on behalf of its viewers.
In 1909, dying German ethnologist Theo (Jan Bijvoet) approaches the lonely Amazonian shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), the last survivor of his tribe, in his desperate search for yakruna, the sacred plant with mythical healing properties. The initially suspicious shaman offers to help him once Theo promises to lead him to the members of his decimated tribe, living in a remote part of the jungle.
Thirty years later, the elderly Karamate (Antonio Bolivar) is visited by another white man, Evan (Brionne Davis), an American botanist looking for the same extraordinary plant. Using Theo’s journal notes as a compass, Karamakate agrees to retrace the steps of the journey he once took down the Amazon river. He’s searching for his own lost memories, while the deep, murky waters of the life-giving river merge the past and the present into a lost world.
Through David Gallego’s striking black and white photography, the film escapes the rigid confines of time. And so, the natural habitat becomes a colourless canvas that allows the difference between the white man’s perception of life and the indigenuous shaman’s understanding of it to forge new, defining lines between its numerous shades. The shadows lurking amidst the low contrast expose the rain forest in a more subliminal and visceral way than in the breathtakingly lush landscapes of Green Frontier (2019), for example.
The unknown culture, history and languages of the Amazon take the lead in this philosophical and existential allegory, which transcends the human psyche of its protagonists. In turn, they must rely on themselves to find or regain their place in a world that has witnessed the eradicating violence of the Caucheros (rubber plantation workers), sadistically deranged monks, and a disturbed Messiah supporting mass suicides. According to the director himself, the last figure is based on a 19th century man called Venancio Aniseto Kamiko, who garnered many followers as a self-proclaimed second Christ.
Most of the supporting cast belongs to the native tribes of Cubeo and Wanano, and the Spanish script was translated into their own native languages. Thus, the production takes on an anthropological role too, as it offers representation to lesser known people, history, language and spirituality. The captivating scores of the Venezuelian composer Nasquy Linares include field recordings of indigenous communities’ traditional songs, wrapping the plot with a sense of chilling authenticity.
Embrace if the Serpent serves as a direct critique of colonialism and the obliteration of the Amazon people’s presence in their natural habitat. Both the title and the story reflect the tribal notion of regeneration and birth, as shown through the divine anaconda giving birth to its offspring. Karamakate’s spiritual and existential narrative cannot be captured by the camera both of his two companions seem obsessed with.
When he first sees his own photograph, he sees a “chullachaqui” (a deceitful monster from the legends of the Machiguenga people in Peru, which perfectly replicates the human form). His lost memories and heritage are instead written in stone and passed on to an unlikely disciple, as science-blinded Evan is challenged to question his own life, consequently reaching a higher sense of self.
The film received universal critical acclaim and numerous awards, including the Cannes Director’s Fortnight CIACE Art Cinema Award. In 2016, Guerra’s fictional work became the first Colombian film to ever receive a nomination for an Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. Embrace of the Serpent doesn’t rely solely on its protagonists and their actions, but rather their roles in shaping and continuing history in a cyclical, infinite way – much like the Ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail.
It’s a must-see visual masterpiece for everyone; so much so that even bypassing all of the film’s profound dialogue would lead the astounded audience to the same place of orphic contemplation.
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