Embrace of the Serpent was the recipient of the 2016 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the recent Sundance Film Festival.
As Colombia’s submission for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar, The Embrace of the Serpent surprised awards-watchers when it secured one of only five nominations for the award in January. Ciro Guerra’s third feature is a searingly unforgettable portrait of the legacy of colonialism in the Amazon region, as well as a testament to both indigenous residents and non-natives motivated to prioritize conservation over exploitation in the rainforest.
Shot digitally in spectacular black and white and based on renowned expeditions through the Colombian Amazon that occurred during two distinct time periods, the film sources the early 20th Century journals of German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grunberg and the midcentury accounts recorded by pioneering American ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. Tangentially, the film also examines and questions the botanical basis of existential belief, drawing upon the psychoactive properties of Amazonian plants, which both of the researchers are seeking to investigate with the assistance of rainforest natives.
The film begins as Theodor (Jan Bijvoet) begins losing his grip on reality under the influence of an unidentified tropical disease. His assistant and guide Manduca (Yauenku Miguee) floats him down an Amazon tributary in a wooden canoe searching for legendary shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), the only surviving member of an indigenous tribe decimated by European-driven genocide and disease. Identifying Theodor as an agent of the destructive colonialists, European-Colombian rubber producers who enslaved tens of thousands of native peoples in their quest for untold wealth, Karamakate at first refuses to help Manduca locate the rare and perhaps mythical yakruna plant, source of a powerful hallucinogen that could cure Theodor’s mysterious affliction.
A parallel narrative set approximately 40 years later tracks a solo expedition undertaken by ethnobotanist Evan (Brionne Davis) to catalog rare Amazonian plants, particularly those with hallucinogenic properties. Traveling deep into the Colombian rainforest he encounters a much older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar Salvador) and persuades him to help find the elusive yakruna for his burgeoning catalog of native plant species.
In each case, the interlopers’ attempts to interact with Karamakate spark conflict, miniaturizing the fundamental clash between European invaders and indigenous peoples. Rather than externalizing these colonialist confrontations as a struggle for control of exploitable resources, Guerra and co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde recognize that the essential conflict seeks to determine a dominant worldview that favors either conservation or exploitation of natural resources, whether botanical, human or metaphysical.
Guerra interweaves the two stories and time periods, sometimes almost disorientingly, as Karamakate guides the visitors on their journeys along treacherous stretches of river and deep into the forest, where they encounter the ravages wrought by colonial rubbertappers and Christian missionaries. The narrative is often filled with emotional turmoil, particularly for Karamakate journeying back to his ancestral lands that are now devoid of his tribal relations, but an undercurrent of mutual respect that develops between Karamakate and the Caucasians hints at hopes for a peaceful resolution to conflicts in the Amazon that continue to disrupt native communities.
Adopting an almost ethnographic perspective, Guerra and cinematographer David Gallego immerse their characters and the audience in the Amazonian environment, trekking through the rainforest, gliding down jungle rivers and scaling isolated highland areas. Much of the dialogue consists of an ongoing debate about conflicting native and Western worldviews, with Karamakate largely dismissive of the science and modern developments that the interlopers have to offer.
While we know that resource conflicts in the region have intensified in the past 70 years, bringing to fruition Karamakate’s ominous premonitions, it’s somehow reassuring to watch this re-creation of bygone days and imagine whether some sort of moral and spiritual redemption might still be possible for the plunderers of Amazonia, both past and present.
Embrace of the Serpent is currently playing in Los Angeles and select cities nationwide. Read a full list of show dates here.