Ciro Guerra creates a powerful film of transcendent beauty about the arrogance of the Western white man in relation to Native American cultures
Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpiente) (2015)

Di­rect­ed by Ciro Guer­ra. Writ­ten by Ciro Guer­ra and Jacques Toule­monde Vi­dal. Star­ring Nil­bio Tor­res, An­to­nio Bolí­var, Jan Bi­jvoet, Brionne Davis, Lui­gi Scia­man­na and Yauenkü Migue.

Em­brace of the Ser­pent, first Colom­bian film to be nom­i­nat­ed for an Acad­e­my Award for Best For­eign Lan­guage Film, is a film of tran­scen­dent beau­ty and splen­dor. In­spired by the trav­el di­aries of Ger­man ex­plor­er Theodor Kock-Grün­berg and Amer­i­can bi­ol­o­gist Richard Evans Schultes, it takes us on a myth­ic jour­ney into the heart of the in­fi­nite Ama­zon­ian jun­gle that has dri­ven many to “com­plete and ir­re­me­di­a­ble in­san­i­ty,” ex­pos­ing in the process the ar­ro­gance of the white man who con­quers and de­stroys what is sa­cred to oth­ers. Even to­day it is pos­si­ble to see the ne­far­i­ous con­se­quences of what has been done for cen­turies to en­tire Amerindi­an pop­u­la­tions in the name of greed and cru­el oppression.

Writ­ten by Ciro Guer­ra and Jacques Toule­monde Vi­dal, Em­brace of the Ser­pent is struc­tured like a road movie (or a “riv­er movie”) fol­low­ing two par­al­lel sto­ries thir­ty years apart. In 1909, Ger­man ethno­g­ra­ph­er Theo von Mar­tius (Jan Bi­jvoet), who has been liv­ing in the Ama­zon for many years, is very ill and pleads with Ama­zon­ian shaman Kara­makate (Nil­bio Tor­res) to help him find a rare (fic­tion­al) sa­cred plant called yakruna that could save him. Mean­while, in 1940, Amer­i­can botanist Evan (Brionne Davis) lo­cates a much old­er Kara­makate (An­to­nio Bolí­var) in the hopes that he will help him com­plete the quest that Theo start­ed so many years be­fore — which Kara­makate ac­cepts for rea­sons we will un­der­stand only later.

Shot in a stun­ning black and white, with a 2.35:1 as­pect ra­tio and usu­al­ly in deep fo­cus, Guerra’s film is a ful­ly im­mer­sive and evoca­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. The mag­nif­i­cent cin­e­matog­ra­phy ex­plores the majesty of the jun­gle to such an ex­tent that we are able to feel how some­one might get lost in its mys­ter­ies, with each shot so beau­ti­ful it could be framed and put on a wall of any mu­se­um. The film’s sound de­sign helps en­hance that im­mer­sive feel­ing, al­most plac­ing us there along­side the char­ac­ters on their jour­ney, and Guer­ra also in­cludes pow­er­ful im­ages that seem like the very de­f­i­n­i­tion of vi­su­al mys­tic po­et­ry, such as a jaguar killing a boa or the psy­che­del­ic ex­plo­sion of shapes and col­ors that we see in a defin­ing scene in the end.

It is an in­tense­ly mys­tic jour­ney into the heart of the jun­gle, and that is re­flect­ed on mo­ments like when Kara­makate speaks of dream vi­sions and prophet­ic mes­sages from Mas­ter Caapi (that is, pro­voked by the hal­lu­cino­genic plant Ban­is­te­ri­op­sis Caapi, com­mon­ly known as ayahuas­ca) or when he tells Evan that he has be­come a chul­lachaqui, a myth­i­cal lost soul that wan­ders through the world as a shad­ow of him­self. This whole mys­ti­cism is in­trin­si­cal­ly re­lat­ed to Karamakate’s life, as he be­lieves that na­ture has some­thing like a mind or a con­science of its own (at one point he says that “the riv­er can tell you when to row”) and gods that pro­tect it — gods that will pun­ish us if we don’t re­spect the for­est and the crea­tures liv­ing there.

And that brings us to the main theme in Em­brace of the Ser­pent: the de­struc­tion pro­mot­ed by the greedy white man who doesn’t val­ue na­ture. Man­d­u­ca (Yauenkü Migue), Theo’s trav­el com­pan­ion, is an Ama­zon­ian In­di­an that Theo saved from en­slave­ment on a rub­ber plan­ta­tion (where rub­ber barons gave him back scars). The rub­ber barons en­slave the na­tives and force them to ex­tract la­tex from the seringueiras for use in rub­ber pro­duc­tion. If they fail to col­lect suf­fi­cient la­tex, they are se­vere­ly pun­ished or killed. Many atroc­i­ties have been com­mit­ted against Ama­zon In­di­ans dur­ing those times, and to­day it is re­port­ed that thou­sands have been cru­el­ly mur­dered. As Kara­makate puts it, “If those rub­ber barons are men, I am a snake.”

But ex­ploita­tion is not the sole hor­ror they find along their way. In an­oth­er mo­ment, they come across a Ca­puchin re­li­gious or­der whose mis­sion is to cat­e­chize na­tives in the hopes of elim­i­nat­ing their cul­ture and lan­guage (which the priest in charge of the place calls “lan­guages of the dev­il”). They steal boys from their vil­lages “to keep them from can­ni­bal­ism and ig­no­rance” and im­pose their West­ern Chris­t­ian val­ues (which they be­lieve to be su­pe­ri­or) onto those who they con­sid­er “prim­i­tive sav­ages.” It is in­fu­ri­at­ing to think that these things ac­tu­al­ly hap­pened and helped erase en­tire Amerindi­an cul­tures, giv­ing na­tives the only choice be­tween slav­ery, death or the re­lin­quish­ing of their ways of life by force.

But the white man’s ar­ro­gance is not only an ac­tive thing. Theo fights with a tribe of In­di­ans over a com­pass be­cause he wants to pre­serve the lo­cals’ knowl­edge (Their ori­en­ta­tion sys­tem is based on the winds and po­si­tions of the stars; if they start us­ing a com­pass, their knowl­edge will be lost.) What he doesn’t re­al­ize is that, as Kara­makate puts it, “knowl­edge be­longs to all men,” and it is in­cred­i­bly ar­ro­gant from him (if well-in­ten­tioned, though) to keep the na­tives in the dark to pro­tect their prim­i­tive knowl­edge. Theo is not aware of his con­de­scen­sion, like an ar­ro­gant sci­en­tist prob­ing into the wildlife us­ing a mi­cro­scope, while Evan, on the oth­er hand, im­pa­tient­ly dis­dains Karamakate’s mys­tic be­liefs as some­thing with­out value.

Bi­jvoet and Davis trans­late su­perbly the sci­en­tif­ic think­ing that dri­ves them to fas­ci­na­tion or skep­ti­cism, yet the cen­ter of Em­brace of the Ser­pent is def­i­nite­ly Kara­makate in both his in­car­na­tions. When young, he is em­bod­ied by Tor­res as an an­gry man (but who can also laugh), skep­ti­cal of the white man and hop­ing to re­gain what he lost a long time be­fore (his tribe), while when much old­er he is played by Bolí­var as a re­gret­ful man fac­ing an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis (when Evan first sees him, Kara­makate says “you can see me?”) It is only in the film’s third act that we un­der­stand what shaped the young Kara­makate to be­come his old­er self and how he is try­ing to atone for a mis­take that turned him into a chul­lachaqui of himself.

With a beau­ti­ful struc­ture that con­nects the two plot­lines so flu­id­ly and or­gan­i­cal­ly, Em­brace of the Ser­pent can be mag­i­cal (the yakruna tree is en­tranc­ing in its su­per­nat­ur­al beau­ty) or psy­che­del­ic (es­pe­cial­ly in the end). It can also be mad, like a scene (based on an ac­tu­al event) that shows us a sect of Maku In­di­ans wor­ship­ing a crazy “Mes­si­ah” who speaks Por­tuguese with a weird ac­cent. Filmed in the Ama­zonía re­gion of Colom­bia, the film is an es­sen­tial look at an ugly past and a gor­geous piece of work that ex­alts the val­ue of in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tions and their lan­guages (Cubeo, Wanano, Tiku­na and Uito­to), re­mind­ing us of the in­jus­tices that have been com­mit­ted against them and that we should nev­er forget.

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