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Director: Ciro Guerra
Writers: Ciro Guerra, Theodor Koch-Grunberg (based on the diary by)
Stars: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis
A journey down a river has long been metaphorical in film, the Heart of Darkness analogy prevalent in numerous stories of redemption, discovery and self-realization. With Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente), it’s a visually stunning experience that deftly examines the futility of old meeting modern and trying to find commonalty–a theme touched on recently, but with an entirely different approach and whose characters face decidedly different consequences in Eli Roth‘s horror film, The Green Inferno. It’s based on the real-life journals of two ethnologists, German Theodor Koch-Grünberg and American Richard Evans Schultes. They traveled in different times to the Amazonian jungles, with Koch-Grüberg exploring in the early 1900s and Schultes 40 years later. Their research of cultures living mostly unchanged since the Stone Age, and especially these people’s knowledge of herbs and plants, had great significance.
Embrace of the Serpent slightly changes these men’s names for the story. Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and Evan (Brionne Davis) arrive in the jungles of the Amazon 40 years apart but have two things in common. They search for a fabled plant with healing powers called ‘yakruna’, Theo, because he is dying and Evan, because he’s read Theo’s journals.
We meet the third character in this intriguing story, a fictional creation made for the film. His name is Karamakate, a shaman, and the very last of his people, who as a young man, escaped the ravages of his home by encroaching rubber barons and missionaries. He’s played by two actors, Nilbio Torres as a young man, and Antonio Bolívar Salvador as the elder. Both actors are indigenous men and each bring exceptional heart to the story of a man without a people. Their separate introductions are most memorable, with young Karamakate squatting by the river’s edge in total silence witnessing a white man in a boat approach, accompanied by a native who has taken to the white man’s ways. Karamakate is hostile and refuses to help. A fiercely proud man, he is utterly alone, but when the man hints that he has seen others of this tribe, he has cause for a change. Forty years later, we meet Karamakate again, still alone when another small boat approaches with a different white man inside. When the white man speaks, Karamakate asks, “You can see me?” It’s a revealing moment.
The movie splices these two journeys into parallel paths, moving from one canoe to the other, passing between time with the same gentle ease as each boat skimming atop the water. Filmed in breathtaking black-and-white (save for one ethereal moment that is powerfully effective simply because it’s in color), the jungle, shot entirely on location, is the fourth character, a living, breathing entity that engulfs the others in a sometimes terrifying yet always beautiful canopy. It is rich with symbolism, perhaps most striking at the start during a credit sequence that lingers on an extreme close-up of an enormous constrictor giving birth to dozens of young, the modern world crushing the old and spreading to all corners. We visit her again sometime later where a jaguar enters the frame. I’ll leave you to discover what happens and what it means.
The relationships between these three man is tenuous at best, thin bridges exists but are never stable. The white men cling defiantly to their many boxes and travel cases, holding on to their ‘things’ for which Karamakate warns will be their end. He is wise man, untrusting of the what the white man offers. That is the film’s core message and one that hinges on Karamakate, a man deeply affected by his younger experience who rediscovers decades later when, as an older man, confused by this everyday life and the loss of memory, the reservations and concerns he had for white men come flooding back. There is a harrowing moment when the older Karamakate and Evan are taken into a former mission by cultists in a place the young Karamakate and Theo visited long before. It’s devastating moment.
Directed by Ciro Guerra, Embrace of the Serpent is a powerful experience, even if it meanders from its themes and doesn’t fully maximize the potential of Karamatake and the extreme depth of this plight. That doesn’t diminish the effect though. This is a stirring achievement, a glimpse into a world so few will see. It’s exceptionally well-paced and pulses with atmosphere, a powerful statement on man’s unrelenting push to know the natural world, even at it’s expense, and a critical look at Western ideals.