Director: Ciro Guerra
Writer: Ciro Guerra, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
Starring: Jan Bijvoet, Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolívar
Duration: 125 minutes
Country: Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina
BBFC Certification: U
Embrace of the Serpent is one of the best films I saw this year, it was released in the United Kingdom on DVD / Blu-Ray by Peccadillo Pictures on 12th September 2016. It is directed by Columbian film maker Ciro Guerra. The film is based on two different sources, the diaries of German ethnologist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg, and also the diaries of American biologist Richard Evans Schultes.
Shot in black and white, Embrace of the Serpent is a fictionalised account, telling the story of two different western explorers who visit the Amazonian rain forest, thirty years apart, and seek out a shaman / guide named Karamakate to look for the rare Yakruna, a (fictional) sacred plant. The first explorer is named Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his visit takes place in 1909; he is sick and travelling up the Amazon river by canoe, guided by another westernised local, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), whom Theo has saved from enslavement by rubber plantation barons. Theo is described as an expert ethnographer, and he carries with him extensive field notes. But he is sick , and seeks the help of the young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), shaman to find healing. Theo asks Karamakate to show him to the plant Yakruna, which he believes will heal him, and the three set off an journey along the Amazon to the find the plant.
Thirty years later another explorer, Evan (Brionne Davis), canoes up the amazon to find an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar), once again in search of the sacred plant Yakruna, and claiming he is wanting to complete the previous explorer’s (Theo) quest. Although Karamakate has no clear recollection of meeting the previous explorer, he agrees to support Evan in his quest.
There are a number themes and situations that arise in the background to the story of the search for the sacred plant. One theme being the abuses of the Brazilian and Columbian rubber barons, who are in the process of exploiting and generally wreaking havoc upon indigenous land and people. Another background theme focuses on the corruption and the perversions associated with a Spanish Catholic Missionary. In both stories the explorers are taken to an isolated Missionary run by a sadistic priest, who accommodates and controls a community of young boys orphaned by the abuses of the rubber boom. The priest is righteous in the supremacy of Christian dogma, demonising and degrading the Pagan religion of the indigenous people.
It would be hard to encapsulate all that is good about the film by simply recounting the narrative. The film manages to convey the sense of an infinite jungle, both physical and meta-physical. The western explorers, like the rubber barons want to conquer, want to describe and understand the rain forest, but these are notions the shaman can not conceptualise. The shaman describes a sustainable philosophy, to live in harmony with the natural resources of the rain forest, and not to want to control them. Karamakate accuses Theo of wanting to be ‘two people’, the wise shaman perceives Theo’s need to control the environment, and therefore alienate his own true essence, perhaps the real aspect of his illness. In another truth loaded comment to the explorer Karamakate states, throw away your luggage, it will lead you to madness. Simple, but obvious, the materialism of western man has led to his won destruction, with complete disregard for future consequences.
Embrace of the Serpent manages to convey a sense of dream time, whilst simultaneously offering a critique of the abuses by western man on the Amazonian land and people. The final message being if you try to cultivate what is sacred you end up destroying the thing made it sacred in the first place.
In light of all that is happening in the world, Embrace of the Serpent seems like a pertinent and essential film to watch; it is entraining, informative, beautiful and thought provoking.