Embrace of the Serpent’s premise doesn’t sound prepossessing: Amazonian tribesmen and white men make their way down a river to find a near-extinct plant. Director Ciro Guerra and co-writer Jacques Toulemonde Vidal adapted the story from the diaries of two white visitors to the Amazon, but they put no effort into sticking to history. With a modus operandi that would make Oliver Stone proud, they put the story ahead of “what really happened,” transforming a collection of diary entries into a compelling story about life, death, and humanity.
The film centers on Karamakate (Nilbio Torres, young; Antonio Bolívar, old), the putative last survivor of the Amazon’s Cohiuano tribe, and his quest for purpose and redemption. In 1909, a more outgoing Amazonian tribesman named Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) rows into Karamakate’s hermitage. Manduca has brought Theodor von Martius (Jan Bijvoet), a white German ethnographer rendered moribund by an unspecified illness. Karamakate, a recluse who distrusts whites, fulminates at treating Theo, but he relents at Manduca’s insistence. The trio embark on a hunt for the yakruna plant, which may cure Theo’s illness.
In 1940, American botanist Evans (Brionne Davis) asks Karamakate for assistance in finding the same yakruna plant. Evans, who admires Theo, seeks the kernel of truth laid out in Theo’s diaries. Karamakate’s distrust of whites hasn’t abated, but he now follows Evans as a passenger, as he wishes to regain his own repressed memories of the 1909 adventure. Thus begins two parallel quests for the yakruna plant… and for Karamakate, the truth of his life’s purpose.
Like most of our readership (I’d imagine), I’ll admit that I “have to feel like” watching period dramas or movies that feel like barely-fiction documentaries. Embrace of the Serpent transcended my reservations within minutes. The black-and-white film and the straightforward composition makes the entire film feel like a moving Autochrome. Guerra uses chiaroscuro to add a dimension of mysticism that makes for a slow, subtle gradation into a surreal finale that will remind you of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life in all the best ways.
Like other films with two parallel, time-separated narratives (Fried Green Tomatoes, Back to the Future, Stephen King’s It), Embrace of the Serpent’s past story emerges as the more interesting half. The later story in such films can feel like an overlong framing device or an attempt to tie up loose ends or a Don Quixote-esque condensation of the past story as a highlight reel. But here, the juxtaposition of the two plot threads works in a way that overcomes its weaknesses. Taken together, the two plot threads tell a story of redemption for Karamakate. Several times, Karamakate refers to Evans as “two people”: he sees Evans and Theo as one and the same. As crazy as that sounds, from a thematic perspective, he makes perfect sense.
Duality lies at the heart of Embrace of the Serpent. The juxtaposition of Karamakate and white characters causes the story to have two sides. Karamakate and Manduca also differ in how they handle their animosity against the rubber barons who threaten their way of life. The film doesn’t portray any characters—white or indigenous—as “perfect.” Guerra refuses to flinch from the atrocities of the time: the enslavement; the genocide; the torture; the child abuse, the mass starvation.… Even so, Guerra doesn’t lay blame with European civilization or the indigenous peoples: he aims his invective at the rubber barons and their greed-driven coadunation of these two cultures.
Guerra depicts this best by having both timelines’ travelers happen upon a Christian mission. In the 1909 story, a priest (Luigi Sciamanna) raises orphans there. He forces the children to speak Spanish and abjure all remnants of their past lives, punishing all lapses with brutal whippings. The 1940 story reveals that these children grew into religious zealots who worship an insane self-proclaimed messiah (Nicolás Cancino). Weaving between Spanish and Portuguese, with wild eyes he threatens all with excruciating death and promises a flood of miracles. He crosses swords with the protagonists when he comes to believe that they have the power to cure the illness of his child bride.
The Amazon serves the same purpose as the Mississippi River did for Huckleberry Finn. The river and the episodic adventures on its banks transform how our characters view the world and forces them to look within themselves for their true natures. It brings to the surface not just conflicting personalities but conflicting ideologies. Karamakate clings with such desperation to the customs and shibboleths of his culture that he resists any contact with white people. Manduca believes that, if Theo survives his quest, he will return to Germany to make his countrymen aware of the atrocities and plights of the indigenous populations. Theo and Evans both have an attachment to possessing tangible things, even in the face of Karamakate’s advice that such things will only weigh them down, literally and spiritually.
Embrace of the Serpent tells a compelling story about protagonists we seldom see. The film tells this story with style and conviction, and it serves as an important historical document on top of it. The oppressive, unrelenting aura of death and putrefaction makes this a hard film to sit through, but it all happens in service to a well-told story. In its depiction of Colombian history, I’d go so far as to rank this film next to Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Indigenous tribes like these still exist today. Their lives have changed little even since 1909. As such, ironic as it may sound, this black-and-white period piece, with its reality-bending ending that explains little and ignores its real-life source material, can bring us all one step closer to understanding the world.Liked This? Share It!