Embrace of the Serpent
Original Title: El Abrazo de la Serpiente
Release Date: May 25, 2015
Director: Ciro Guerra
Diaries by: Theodor Koch-Grünberg, Richard Evans Schultes
Screenplay: Ciro Guerra, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolívar Salvador, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, Yauenkü Migue, Nicolás Cancino, Luigi Sciamanna
Recalling such films as Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo, Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s striking third feature, Embrace of the Serpent, tracks a pair of mythical, quasi-ethnographic journeys into the heart of the Amazon to explore and comment on the destructive powers of colonialism. It is loosely inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers: German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg  and Harvard-educated American biologist Richard Evans Schultes . In the film, the two scientists travel, separately, through the Colombian Amazon during the early twentieth century to document the indigenous cultures in general and to look for a rare and sacred healing plant called “yakruna” (fictional) in particular. Unlike most thematically similar efforts, it is wholly embracing of the indigenous perspective.
Filmed during the course of seven weeks in the jungles of Vaupés , the film opens with the figure who unites the two voyages and more or less serves as its conscience: an indigenous shaman named Karamakate, who believes that he’s the last survivor of his people. It is sometime during the early 1900s when he comes across an ailing German, Theo (Bijvoet), and his local guide and assistant (Migue) who want to enlist his services to locate the fabled plant. According to Theo, it can save his life. Theo entices a reluctant Karamakate by referencing other living members of his Cohiuano tribe he discovered during the expedition.
The film soon jumps ahead some three decades and Karamakate meets another Westerner, an American named Evans (Davis), who wants to complete Theo’s research and locate that elusive flower. A noticeably wearier Karamakate, who has reasons to distrust outsiders, decides to join the search once again. He is played in his youth by Nilbio Torres, whose seemingly gym-sculpted physique is actually the result of the hard life in the jungle, and in his middle age by Antonio Bolívar Salvador, reportedly among the last survivors of the Ocaina people.
Majestically shot in black-and-white (barring a psychedelic color sequence near the end), which gives it a certain timeless quality, the film casually alternates between the two voyages, both of which roughly take place along the same stretch of river. Although the point is made far too literally, this is important because, at one particular juncture, both cultural and ecological exploitation by the European invaders become one and the same.
During the earlier journey, the travelers witness a deranged Spanish priest abusing young children orphaned in a massacre by rubber merchants . When Karamakate returns to that location with Evans, it is ruled by a messianic cult leader and his followers include those children who have now become adults. According to Guerra, this character and his macabre teachings are based on the history of a zealot named Anizetto . It is safe to say, however, that he is also well familiar with Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness—which also inspired the aforementioned Coppola film—and, possibly, the work of Cinema Novo master Glauber Rocha.
In a more subtly damning moment, Theo becomes angry upon realizing that his compass has been stolen by a tribesman. He wants the indigenous population to remain true to their cultural methods, no matter how ignorant. Karamakate rightly points out to him that knowledge belongs equally to all men, but he would not understand that because of his heritage. Given its focus on foreign objects, this film could easily have been titled “White Material,” to reference Claire Denis’s thematically similar 2009 movie.
Although we most likely won’t experience any major ramifications during our lives, climate change, as Leonardo DiCaprio pointed out during his Oscar acceptance speech, is indeed real. This elegiac epic, which goes back in time to survey a vanishing natural world and its inhabitants due to our ignorance and neglect, also deserves to be viewed as a cautionary tale about the future.