Embrace of the Serpent
Trippy Colombian adventure tale takes us up the river and out of our heads
Embrace of the Serpent (2016)
Directed by Ciro Guerra
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar
Embrace of the Serpent, the Colombian film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, takes viewers on a mythopoetic historical trip up the mysterious Amazon river. Of course, any time you depict the clash of European and native cultures along that particular waterway, you’re pretty much playing in Werner Herzog’s sandbox. The famed German director created the ultimate statement on the subject with his indelible 1972 film Aguirre, The Wrath of God. Embrace of the Serpent tackles the subject with slightly less angst, but with an increasing amount of metaphysical weight.
The film, written and directed by Ciro Guerra (The Wind Journeys, La Sombra del Caminante), is loosely inspired by the journals of European explorers Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes. The two were ethnologists and ethnobotanists who wrote extensively about the native peoples of the Amazon river basin. In many cases, the writings of these two men are the only records we have of long-lost tribes and long-forgotten plants.
Shot in luminous black-and-white, the film takes us first back to 1909 when the fictionalized Theodor (Jan Bijvoet) and his loyal native guide (Yauenkü Migue) stumble into the isolated camp of legendary, hermit-like shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres). Theodor, a gentleman explorer, has contracted some unknown tropical illness and is on death’s door. The locals have informed him that only the ministrations of Karamakate can save him. But the bitter young shaman is the last of his people and his mistrust of white men is strong. Eventually, however, he’s convinced to help Theodor, leading the scientist on a punishing quest along the river to find a rare flower, the yakruna, with allegedly miraculous healing powers.
In a parallel storyline, set decades later, a German ethnobotanist named Evan (Brionne Davis) shows up looking for Karamakate. Theodor, it seems, never made it out of the jungle, but his journals were published and have been the last word on Amazonian culture and medicine for the last 30 years. Evan wants to confirm the writings and asks a now aged Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) to take him on the same journey upriver. Unfortunately, the shaman is a senile shell of his former self. The formulas for his miraculous cures are now lost to time. But he flips the script on the German and asks the European to serve as guide back to the “Workshop of the Gods” where the last surviving yakruna flowers might be found.
By paging back and forth in time, the film contemplates how modern civilization has impacted this delicate biological region. Successive generations of colonists, conquerers, rubber barons and religious missionaries have all but wiped out native traditions—taking countless medicinal mysteries with them. Although, for the majority of its run time, Embrace of the Serpent sticks to its ethnographic vibe, it becomes increasingly dark, tense and spiritual the farther up the river its two sets of characters journey.
The two tales eventually overlap in a vivid set piece reminiscent of Apocalypse Now’s darkest moments. Back in 1909, Theo and Karamakate arrive at an isolated Catholic mission serving as a de facto orphanage for children who have escaped the cruelties of the rubber trade. In the 1940s Evan and Karamakate come to the same mission, now crumbling into the jungle and home to a particularly twisted religious cult. Although much of the film explores the destruction of native culture by European colonists, this section gets at the heart of the matter. On his second visit to the mission, Karamakate realizes that the two cultures have failed to share their beneficial knowledge with one another and have merely melded “the worst of two worlds.”
In following its two symmetrical storylines, Embrace of the Serpent does run a tad long. It’s just over two hours, and there’s a lot of paddling in the middle. But it’s such an absorbing, vividly told, luminously photographed narrative that viewer interest rarely flags. The visceral centerpiece at the mission and an appropriately mystical coda are among the hypnotic highlights. Like the various backwoods drugs Karamakate pumps his charges full of to keep them moving, Embrace of the Serpent will mesmerize you, make you woozy, jack you up, enlighten you and leave you somewhat worse for wear.