The Embrace of the Serpent: a song, a prayer, a symphony
Colombia’s majestic entry in the Oscars does not let us forget the scars of Latin America’s colonial past
The Embrace of the Serpent
Directed by Ciro Guerra
Starring Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, Antonio Bolivar Salvado Yangiama, Nilbio Torres, and Miguel Dionisio Ramos
Opens March 11 at the Kendall Square Cinema
Deep in the Amazonian rainforest, we embark on a journey with Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), a shaman who is one of the only survivors of his tribe. Colombia is being torn apart and pillaged by the rubber plantation barons who control the country during the colonial era. Director Ciro Guerra’s The Embrace of the Serpent is an intricate and mournful examination of the ravages that this period in history wrought upon the indigenous peoples of Colombia. It is based on the travelogues of two explorers, German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet) and American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), who wrote some of the only existing accounts of many of these indigenous tribes.
We are presented with the bizarre quasi-mythical world of the deep Amazonian rainforest through the parallel journeys of two explorers and their guide, Karamakate, on their quest to find the sacred healing plant, yakruna. We first encounter Karamakate as a confident and muscular young man with anger burning in his eyes, and amidst that anger, we see a tiny glimmer of hope that he is not truly alone.
Through him, we see the nature of “civilized” man through a different lens. “Why do you whites love your things so much?” Karamakate asks scornfully as he sees both of his travelling companions unable to part with their luggage. He remarks that we, the “civilized people,” “devour everything.” We do not listen to nature, and if it’s there, we take it.
One begins to wonder who the “savage” really is. When watching this immensely complex character unfurl on the screen, one realizes how far we have come in equating technological prowess with advancement and intelligence, and how wrong we are to make such assumptions.
In the second storyline, we see an old man — weary, alone, and full of regret and suppressed memories, and we realize that he, too, is Karamakate. On these two paths, we pass the same landmarks: the territory of other indigenous peoples, a rubber plantation, and a Roman Catholic mission. The changes that develop between the first and second journey reveal Guerra as a master of metaphor. The young indigenous boys at the mission first appeared to us, in Karamakate’s youth, on the banks of the Amazon in white robes, almost like little angels. On the first pass through, we see the priest viciously whipping these boys. On the second pass, these boys are whipping themselves, under the crazed gaze of a self-proclaimed white “Messiah of the Indians.”
This film is as visually striking as it is thematically rich — “beautiful” doesn’t cover it. The frames are works of art in their own right. It is shot in black and white — an interesting choice given the subject matter. Many of us have grown up seeing footage of the luscious, vibrant green banks of the Amazon with a British voice outlining the immensity and diversity of this vast region. But Guerra does not want us to be fooled or distracted by appearances, by the colors, or by the beauty. He wants us to see it objectively for what it is, not what we have always imagined it to be.
The monochromatic color scheme imbues the film with a somber and foreboding tone. I can’t describe the feeling, but in some scenes, I felt a visceral sort of fear build up even though the action taking place did not yet warrant it. There are images that you will not forget. You’ll see the toll that cruelty, exploitation, and greed take on the innocent. You’ll see it in the remaining eye of a one-armed, hobbling plantation slave, as he begs the travelers for the rapid release of death. You’ll feel Karamakate’s despair when he finally finds the remnants of his long-lost people, only to discover that they have coped with the wretchedness of their existence by perpetual inebriation.
To my surprise, the film does not sink under its own weight and manages to end on a vibrant note of wonder. One does not feel burdened with guilt or hopelessness; one feels that one has been enlightened.
The Embrace of the Serpent defies genre. It is a song in honor of the beauty that lies in man’s connection with nature — a song that is increasingly being deafened by the march of progress and “civilization” as we learn to live apart from nature. It is a prayer for us not to forget the past and a prayer for us to re-examine our relationship with this Earth and all people who inhabit it. Lastly, it is a majestic, sweeping symphony — a feast not only for our senses, but for our sensibilities.