A lyrical journey through the vanished cultures of Amazonia with Embrace of the Serpent

By  · Published on February 20th, 2016

Oscilloscope Pictures

Ciro Guerra’s stunning and elegiac Embrace of the Serpent is at once a quiet lament and a subtle blast of umbrage in equal measure in its poetic study of white men’s impact on earth. Nominated for an Academy Award this year in the Best Foreign Language category – Colombia’s first ever Oscar nomination – Ciro Guerra’s soulful film on the vanished cultures and peoples of the Amazon is charged by piercing contrasts: between the so-called civilized and primitive, humans and nature, and in broadest terms, trust and betrayal. Even its breathtaking black and white photography by David Gallego sits on the intersection of one such raw contrast: as beautiful as the expansive images of deep jungles, vast skies and winding rivers are, they aren’t adored or celebrated here with vibrant colors. Instead, what lingers over Guerra’s film -thanks to its subdued imagery- is a sense of grief felt for the systemic erasure of lushness from this particular slice of earth.

The story, which operates on two timelines separated by almost four decades, follows Karamakate –an Amazonian shaman who believes he is one of the last survivors of his tribe- and two explorers he helps out through their excavations in the jungle and become friends with. Both journeys are inspired by real-life accounts of two scientists (Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes) who documented their travels and pursuits of finding an extremely rare and sacred plant with healing powers called Yakruna. We are initially introduced to the first storyline set in the early 1900s and a younger Karamakate (played by Nilbio Torres) as he aversely keeps an alert eye on an approaching canoe carrying a gravely ill German explorer named Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his local guide Manduca (Miguel Dionisia Ramos). Soon enough, we learn that Theo and Manduca have come with a proposition: if Karamakate –perceptibly uneager to help them and markedly resents their sort- leads the way to the Yakruna plant that might just heal Theo, then Theo in return would help him unite with other last surviving members of his tribe. Cautiously accepting their proposal, Karamakate joins them in a strenuous journey through the jungle. We follow the trio as they become one with nature –guided by Karamakate’s unflinching rules around respecting the earth over all other greedy possessions or agenda- and gently connect with one and other.

Their journey summons Karamakate’s worst fears to sight. Guerra launches and then dials up the sense of devastation as the impact of white settlers’ actions come into sharper focus while we immerse deeper into the wilderness. Not only the exploitation of the Colombian Amazon and its indigenous people by various stakeholders of the rubber industry gets put on brutal display, but also certain unspeakable crimes take the center stage in the film’s most unapologetic segment. In one harrowing and frightening sequence, we witness a Spanish Catholic priest reigning over and violently whipping the orphaned children of the rubber conflict.

The latter timeline –weaved in to the film organically and perceptively by editors Etienne Boussac and Cristina Gallego- occupies a shorter portion of Embrace of the Serpent and contrastingly feels more solemn than livid. This contrast can be observed acutely as we cut back and forth between the two journeys, and absorb the the characters’ difference in attitude. The second storyline finds an aged Karamakate of 1940s (played by Antonio Bolivar Salvado Yangiama) helping out another scientist (named Evans, played by Brionne Davis) on a similar journey in search of the Yakruna plant. The older Karamakate is observably broken in his spirits, but not any less uncompromising in his stance to live harmoniously with nature.

Embrace of the Serpent’s only splash of color resides near its finale and brings flashes of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life to mind, as cosmic colors that surround earth and beyond ultimately reminds us the vastness of the universe and the relative smallness of humankind. As disjointed as this segment initially feels, it doesn’t diminish the film’s powerful aftereffect and message on white men’s many irreversible crimes against various ecosystems throughout history.

The Upside: Breathtakingly gorgeous in its visuals and emotionally affecting throughout.

The Downside: This gorgeous film will ultimately reward the patient, but it’s not for everyone due to its slow and steady nature.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.