Embrace of the Serpent

* * * * 1/2

One of my favorite movies to come out in the past few years, Embrace of the Serpent (2015, Dir. Ciro Guerra) is an award-winning, reverent portrait of one indigenous man’s encounter with the outside world. This film is both an entrancing parable and a cautionary tale, reminding us of the horrors of colonialism, and warning against future wanton exploitation of natural resources and of the people who inhabit largely forgotten parts of the globe. Given the recent media coverage of the widespread fires in the Amazon, and the related discussion about the competing interests of business / politics / the environment / native peoples, I can’t think of a more timely and vital film.

Embrace of the Serpent was shot on location in the Colombian Amazon, with the support of the local community. The film tells the story (inspired by actual travel diaries) of an Amazonian shaman, Karamakate, the last survivor of his tribe, who encounters two different western scientists thirty years apart – one, a German ethnographer in 1909, and the other an American botanist in 1940. Both scientists have come to the Amazon in pursuit of a rare and sacred plant, “yakruna,” said to have healing powers. The shaman agrees to lead these men to the plant, and along the way teaches them lessons they were not prepared to learn. The film focuses on the interplay between these main characters, using their unique stories to hint at a wider context and larger themes. For example, the issue of colonialism and the brutal toll it took on the Amazon region are represented in a variety of scenes showing native peoples enslaved by rubber barons, and young children held captive by Catholic missionaries. The story also hints at divides within the indigenous communities. We watch the shaman, who is a loner, resentful and distrustful of all white men, come into conflict with other native peoples who have chosen to collaborate with or support the colonizers / explorers in one way or another.

Paced near perfectly, the story ingeniously weaves between two time periods, an effect which enhances the drama and suspense of the film. The transitions between the two main stories – the story of Karamakate’s encounter with the German ethnographer in 1909, and the story of his encounter with the American botanist in 1940 – are shot so well, it’s a seamless blend. You do start to feel a sense of time bleeding back and forth, nudging you toward a worldview and understanding more in line with the Amazonian shaman than with the western explorers. Repeated shots of the river, and close ups of the tide and the rippling water lull you into a meditative state, and highlight the implacable constancy of nature; the human characters in the film are fleeting and will soon be gone, while the water, the trees and the earth go about their eons long business of being.

The depth of difference represented by the interactions between the white scientists and the Amazonian shaman is, even if expected, striking. These characters seemingly have no common frame of reference, no shared understandings. They are like aliens to each other. The shaman has his own unique view of spirituality and of the natural world. His people, according to the myths and stories he lives by, were created from an anaconda descending from the sky. He believes in learning from and listening to the natural world; in following the messages and meaningful images delivered in dreams. Western technology – books, phonographs, compasses, photographic images – are completely foreign to him. When one of the scientists takes a picture of him and then shows it to him, the shaman thinks the image is an actual shadow version of himself, with its own distinct existence. The scientists’ affinity for compiling and hoarding “things” is, to the shaman, insane. The scientists, for their part, are genuinely curious about their surroundings and the people living in the Amazon; but they are also hamstrung by certain cultural biases and conditioning which have left them incapable, at least at first, of fully letting go and processing this new information.  

Despite their obvious differences, the film points to the necessity of these disparate characters’ coexistence. The indigenous peoples in the film marvel at the scientists’ technology; in one scene, we see a native leader steal a compass from the German ethnographer. While the scientist is horrified at this, thinking the new technology will swiftly corrupt the “pure” navigational system the native peoples have lived by for generations, the shaman disagrees, commenting that knowledge is not for the scientist and his people alone. In another scene, the shaman discusses with an indigenous man, who is helping the German scientist, how they have to get the “whites” (i.e., privileged / non native peoples) to learn; if they can’t teach them to understand the value of their native culture and of their natural surroundings, then “it will be the end of everything”.

The cinematography in this film is beautiful and the choice to shoot in black and white is interesting given the seemingly endless variety of color on display in the rainforest. It could be a kind of recognition of the futility of ever truly representing such an awesome spectacle on a finite screen. The black and white images also enhance the timeless / mythic quality of the story. There are some visual moments in the movie that are truly stunning and really lock you in your seat. At the end of the film, we see what the American botanist is experiencing on his psychedelic journey, powered by the aforementioned yakruna plant. The images and soundtrack in this scene are quite powerful, and reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s final moments and their mind-bending effect. The scenes in each film both feel like a transporting, spiritual coda; they are simultaneously commenting on the content that has come before, while also in some ways standing outside of the film proper. One image is used twice in the film and acts as a powerful metaphor. Early in the film, we watch as the young shaman, standing near the river, is suddenly surrounded by butterflies. The shaman is described and depicted throughout the movie as a man in tune with his surroundings, as someone who listens to and respects nature. The butterflies represent his unity with the natural world. At the end of the film, this image repeats, but this time the butterflies are surrounding the American botanist. The botanist had initially been described by the shaman as “two men,” seemingly split between a desire to consume and own things, and a genuine curiosity for the environment. After consuming the yakruna plant, he emerges a changed, unified man, capable of communing intimately with the people and things around him.

This is the kind of movie you see when you want to be challenged and taken to a new place. It is full of breathtaking images and powerful storytelling. It is never preaching or talking at you, it is rather gently guiding you along, taking you on a seemingly singular journey that carries with it some subtle and yet potent messages and truths for our present moment. One scene in the film comes to mind. In the scene, the shaman encounters a group of young indigenous children who are being held captive at a Spanish Catholic Mission. The children seem brainwashed, and are clearly in peril of forgetting who they are and where they came from. The shaman tries to teach them some of the traditional ways of his people, imploring them “don’t let our song fade away”. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and when watching this, one does not want to feel like they are in any way a part of the problem, nor in any way tied to those people who would use up more than their fair share of the world for profit or material comfort. Impending climatic disaster is a good catalyst for reflection. To that end, please go see this movie, and let its song ring in your ears.

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