Embrace of the Serpent (2015) / Drama-Adventure
aka El Abrazo de la Serpienta
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably R for some nudity, violent content and drug use
Running Time: 125 min.
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenku Migue
Director: Ciro Guerra
Screenplay: Ciro Guerra, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal (based on the diary of Theodor Koch-Grunberg, and the diary of Richard Evans Schultes)
Review published March 23, 2016
The allegorical lessons of Embrace of the Serpent are potent. Imperialism has corrupted the ancient ways in the Amazon in the first half of the 20th century. Into the "Heart of Darkness" comes two white men, seeking a mystical herb that promises to bring life, even when most of their brethren have brought death and destruction, both literally and metaphorically, to the ways of life in the Amazon rain forests.
The black-and-white film, sumptuously captured by cinematographer David Gallego (Valencia), bounces back and forth between two different time periods about 30 years apart, with an older and younger version of the main character, a shaman named Karamakate, to unite them. Part of this is in 1909, where we find German scientist Theodor (Bijvoet, The Broken Circle Breakdown), along with his native guide Manduca (Migue), encountering the young Karamakate (Torres). Theo is ailing and needs help finding a possible cure, but Karamakate is reluctant to trust this white man, as the Europeans have come in and virtually erased his tribe, the Cohiuano, away in their exploits to extract rubber from the sap of their trees. He ends up assisting Theo when the visitor reveals that some of his people still exist and that he knows where they are. Decades later we're introduced to Evan (Davis, Narcissist), a biologist from America, who has read Theo's diary and has sought out an aging and somewhat forlorn Karamakate (Bolivar) in order to help him find an ultra-rare and sacred plant called yakruna, long rumored to have great power to heal.
In both time periods, a scientist has traveled into the jungle to interact with Karamakate on the hope he can guide them to find something knowledge that could possibly change the world. They didn't discover this area; industry had already come to cull resources from the forests, while Catholic missionaries arrived to turn the indigenous people toward their religious outlook. Whether mining for raw materials or mining for souls to save, the Europeans and Americans have looked to the life, the beauty, and the people of South America and have seen what they could exploit for their own ends. They also want to leave their own mark, forcing the people there to dress in their manner, speak their language, and live in their ways. Meanwhile, the mystic ways of old begin to fade away, a loss of rich culture and system of life that can never return once lost.
Embrace of the Serpent is based on two different diaries, written by the scientists within the film as they explored the Amazon in their respective times, co-adapted by the director, Ciro Guerra (The Wind Journeys, La Sombre del Caminante). Although seemingly straightforward through much of the run time, eventually you can see the themes and parallels begin to take shape between the two time periods, and eventually Guerra's narrative takes a turn into surreal psychedelics to capture the feeling of what has been lost by humankind's erasure of a culture, the ignorance of their thousand-year-deep wisdom, and destruction of wildlife that could hold valuable keys for a variety of known maladies. Although it is obviously a film, there's an authenticity to the look and feel of the events that give us a feel of being a third party to the trek, completely isolated from civilization, and yet it still feels like major events that could effect the rest of the planet are in play in this little pocket of Earth that time forgot.
The film would rightfully garner an Academy Award nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category, the first film from Colombia to earn the honor. It's a film that taps into the dark and oft repeated history of colonialism, where survival of the fittest doesn't necessarily mean survival of the species, who are quick to disregard cultural history and a belief beyond the mundane by continuously driving for exploitation and bloodshed. It's a film about all of the rich, dreamlike beauty of being one with nature and the understated horror of man asserting dominion over it, pulling forth an ironic folly that humankind would rather harvest an endangered plant for its ability to kill other humans rather than for its ability to heal.
Although packaged in a way that will guarantee it relegated to art-house cinema and watched solely by cinephiles and those studying the portrayals of indigenous South Americans, it's well worth seeking out for those who prefer their entertainment filled with a great deal to chew on, and once consumed, its ability to help us understand more about life, the world, and our role in it could contain the power for us to heal, if only governments and industry could listen to a call beyond just power and money.
©2016 Vince Leo