This enthralling drama by Colombian director Ciro Guerra is set in the Amazon rainforest, and if I were to mention that it ocasionally brings to mind Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness and that it features a brace of westerners who are travelling along the Amazon river in search of a flower that will cure illness and (perhaps) provide psychotropic enlightenment, you’d be forgiven for dismissing it as yet another film in which white men go on an exotic quest through the jungle to find/lose themselves or to obtain something they deem to be important, the implication being that the concerns of any indigenous characters in such stories are of a firmly secondary nature. I’ve seen Embrace Of The Serpent mistakenly dismissed in these terms in some quarters, and while physical and spiritual journeys are undertaken by the two western characters here, somewhat refreshingly the real focus is on a shaman named Karamakate, played in two different periods of his life by Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar. Using this character in particular the film seeks to address the indigenous experience in Amazonian Colombia at the turn of the 20th Century, exploring the way in which tribes were exploited and/or the way that their different ways of life were corrupted. Through the film’s decades-spanning structure we see, for example, the direct results of acts of mistreatment carried out by those involved in the rubber trade and religious missionaries. And despite the fact that Embrace Of The Serpent is a post-colonial piece that is critical of colonialism, it’s also refreshing that the two westerners in the film – both scientists – are not simply presented as symptomatic of the problems faced by indigenous people in Colombia, and one in particular seems to be keenly aware that his presence in the jungle is changing the lives of those he comes across; his unshakeable belief in the importance of scientific knowledge, however, means he presses on regardless.
We first see Karamakate as a young man in 1909, watching the river from a bank as a canoe comes into view containing the severely-ill German ethnologist Theo Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) and his travelling companion Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), another indigenous man who – to Karamakate’s displeasure – wears ‘western’ clothes. Theo is on a research expedition, making notes and sketches about flora and fauna in a variety of notebooks, while also photographing the tribes he meets as he travels along the river, but he appears to be near death when the boat first floats into view. Karamakate – who lives away from his own tribe for reasons explained later in the film – has the know-how to keep Theo alive and to help him in his quest to find the rare (and fictional) yakruna plant, which will supposedly cure the German completely. Thus the three set off along the river, despite Karamakate’s initial mistrust and misgivings. Guerra repeats this opening scene shortly thereafter, only now it’s 1940 and the older Karamakate meets American scientist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), who is retracing Theo’s journey into the jungle and is also in search of the yakruna. (Guerra proves to be a master at switching between stories and timelines: this opening segment makes use of a match cut while several other transitions are executed with the kind of grace that is beyond most filmmakers.) Meanwhile, across the two versions of the story, Karamakate discusses his own Chullachaqui, a mythical figure that looks like a copy of a human being but is perhaps a hollow shell or a ‘ghost’ who either intends to deceive or serves as a reminder of that which has been lost or forgotten.
Karamakate as an older man has seemingly forgotten many things – presumably because some of it is irrelevant to his daily life – whereas by contrast both Theo and Richard cling to their notebooks and possessions with a protective fervour, convinced by the importance of the knowledge that they are amassing without ever really understanding what they’re missing or whether, even, their way of life actually is every bit as ridiculous as Karamakate seems to find it. The journeys that Karamakate undertakes with both of these men are similar in that they roughly cover the same physical ground, but it’s the later journey that stirs the shaman’s long-forgotten memories of the former trip, and it’s during the 1940-set scenes that Karamakate questions what he himself has become, and indeed what has become of his land and people. In 1909, for example, Theo, Karamakate and Manduca travel up river, against the current, and eventually come across a Christian mission, in which children orphaned as a result of malpractice within the rubber trade are looked after by a Catholic priest. The priest chooses to beat them when they misbehave. Later, when Richard and the older Karamakate stumble across the same place, it has become overrun by plants and trees and serves as the headquarters for a religious cult, where psychedelic substances are taken and suicide is encouraged by the cult leader; the inference is that many of the young boys from the earlier thread are now brainwashed members of the cult. In every way imaginable the film presents the indigenous people as being worse off in 1940 than they were in 1909, or – rather tellingly – gone completely from the banks of the Amazon. Karamakate is the link between these two periods, yet despite all the differences Guerra’s structure also highlights how certain things have stayed the same: the bends of the river, the foliage, the sound of water and the sounds of the jungle, the belligerent westerner.
Guerra develops many interesting themes – the effects of colonialism, the western desire to ‘teach’ and ‘educate’ without necessarily being open to teachers and educators themselves, the process of aging and reflecting on life that has been lived, the concept of knowledge and how it is affected by memory, the differences between cultures that write things down and those that pass on information and stories verbally – but the real skill is in the way that he weaves them all together (this within a film that – amongst other things – is often very tense and gripping). It’s filmed in black-and-white, although a psychedelic, colourful end sequence appears which is in-step with the mythology presented during the film (Karamakate believes his ancestors were carried to Earth by a giant anaconda, and that in some ways taking the yakruna plant allows one to return to ‘the embrace of the serpent’). The cinematography – by David Gallego – is magnificent, and I haven’t yet seen a film that looks better than this one in 2016. The acting is uniformly excellent, with no weak links among the small cast. In short it’s a fascinating, weighty and beautifully-rendered triumph.
Directed by: Ciro Guerra.
Written by: Ciro Guerra, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal. Based on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes.
Starring: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolívar, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, Yauenkü Migue.
Cinematography: David Gallego.
Editing: Etienne Boussac.
Music: Nascuy Linares.
Running Time: 125 minutes.