Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the serpent (2015) is one of those films in which the story matters less than the atmosphere they create, the magic they diffuse, the spell they cast on the viewer. Its sheer aesthetics, its mesmerising soundtrack and its slow but engaging pace make it compelling to watch without feeling the urge to find an immediate meaning to the narrative. Although shot in black and white, the film almost conveys a colourful impression thanks to the stunning Amazonian rainforest and the never-ending river. Not that there is no story. On the contrary, it is a complex parallel (and loosely biographical) account of the journeys of two scientists, some thirty years apart, on the search for a mystical plant called yakruna and led by reluctant shaman Karamakate. The plant promises to cure German ethnographer Theo von Martius (Jan Bijvoet) while for American botanist Evan (Brionne Davis), following Theo’s tracks three decades later, it is to provide huge economic benefits by protecting rubber trees from disease.
Karamakate, an impressively athletic Amazonian wise man (played by the young Nilbio Torres and older Antonio Bolivar, both excellent non-professional native Colombian actors), has seen his tribe evaporate before his eyes and is now left on his own, uncertain as to what do with his life. By the time Evan meets him, he is positively disturbed and says has become a ‘chullachaqui’, a roaming spirit with no soul nor memories, incapable of evoking any remains of the past. Karamakate is understandably suspicious of the intruding and demanding Western scientists, given the destruction and death brought by their descendants to his Aboriginal fellow-men. But his sense of duty takes over and willy-nilly, he takes the white men across the forests and waters to help them on their quest, dispersing his words of wisdom along the way. His very spiritual way of life is in sharp contrast with the scientists’ ostensible materialism, obsession with ownership and anthropocentric way of life – a prescient denunciation of the consumer society and human greed which have, over the course of the twentieth century wrecked the planet overall, and the Amazon rainforest in particular. Both journeys are slow, treacherous, exhausting. During spine-chilling scenes, we discover in both stories the notorious impact of Christian missions on local populations, who have been dispossessed, brainwashed, tortured, taken in to slavery; we witness the ruthless violence of cross-border conflicts with Colombian soldiers invading native territory… But both scientists, in the time, manage a narrow escape thanks to the help of Karamakate, who also provides herbal medicine remedies to the ailing Theo in spite of his disrespect for Indigenous rites, or access to the last yakruna flower on Earth to Evan, expecting nothing in return. The scientists are depicted as ungrateful, obnoxious imperialists who are at home wherever they set foot, but at the same time it’s the corrupt Western society that’s really to blame for having produced such individuals.
The film navigates along the river from one story to the other seamlessly, following the adventures and multi-lingual conversations (an odd mix of German, English, Spanish and local dialect), between explorers who think they can turn their memories of the jungle into commodities and bring them back in big suitcases and a shaman whose entire possessions boil down to the bones, feathers and fig leaf on his “back”. Throughout the film, both the river and forest are characters in their own right, exuding power and threat here, generosity and warmth there. While the forest offers seemingly unlimited resources, the river unfolds like a lifetime, which is made more obvious by the parallel story-telling and the shift between the young and the old Karamakate. Technically, the film offers superbly sharp natural landscapes without ever seeming like a heavy-duty, big production. It achieves a hypnotic proximity with the characters and their contemplations – with a short Kubrik-like dream sequence in full colour – and the resulting intimacy makes the viewers feel like they are travelling along, whether they are absorbed by the story or just following their regained animal instinct through the Amazon. This is one of the most beautiful movies made in recent years, and it was the first Colombian production to be nominated for Best Foreign Language at the Oscars last year. A must-see!
Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpiente, 2015) by Ciro Guerra with Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis.