Knowledge belongs to all: Embrace of the Serpent

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

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


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.

De­cem­ber 11, 2016


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