Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

This is a Colombian film filmed almost entirely in black and white and since you’re seeing it here, that means that it was very highly regarded by critics. It was made by little known Colombian director Ciro Guerra and filmed in the jungles of the Amazonia region of the country. An ending blurb suggest that parts of it were inspired by diaries kept by real European explorers and these are almost the only records that still exist of the tribes described therein.

The film recounts two separate narratives that are decades apart. In the early 20th century, the German explorer Theo van Martius is accompanied by his servant Manduca as he searches for the mythical yakruna plant to cure a disease that he has contracted. Other shamans direct him to the reclusive Karamakate, a reclusive man who is said to be the last survivor of a tribe that has been decimated by colonialists. The shaman is reluctant to help at first but goes along when Theo claims that he has met other members of his tribe. Thirty years later an American botanist Evan follows in Theo’s footsteps based on his book. He too is directed to a shaman, this time an elderly one and it is eventually clear this is the same Karamakate. He tells the shaman that though Theo is known to have perished in the jungle, his servant managed to send his manuscript and notes to his family in Germany where they were compiled and published into a book. Unfortunately the aged shaman seems to have forgotten much of his people’s lore and is motivated to follow Evan as a means to recover his old memories. The film follows the two expeditions in parallel as they travel through villages, rubber plantations, a Spanish Catholic mission and onto the resting place of the sacred plant.

The cinematography is gorgeous and the choice of filming in black and white brings it to life in a novel manner. I love how there is a subtle tinge of the mystical underlying everything while maintaining a perfectly comprehensible narrative. And of course I love how it incorporates dense themes about colonization, religion, the value of the native Amazonian peoples’ cultural knowledge and much more in a compact, moving film. This has been hailed as the best film ever made about this region and it seems impossible to disagree. It reminds me of the Taiwanese film Warriors of the Rainbow in being a powerful reminder that there is much of value in these lost and forgotten cultures. Whether or not there is much practical value today in this traditional knowledge, Embrace of the Serpent makes the case that it still deserves to be recorded for posterity. In one scene, Theo is reluctant to leave a compass with a tribe, knowing that its greater of ease of use would mean that once they adopt it, the natives would eventually forget their own navigation techniques based on the tides and the stars. I think the natives do deserve to learn modern technology if it is clearly superior but great care must be taken to record what they know before it is forever lost.

This film has also been compared to Apocalypse Now as the explorers here similarly travel on a river boat to venture ever deeper into the jungle as well as the presence of a Messiah-like figure in a key scene.  That scene seems to get all the attention and it is certainly a great one especially with Karamakate observing that the cult, consisting of young natives taught in a cruel manner to convert to Catholicism, has absorbed the worst of both cultures. Yet the film has plenty of other scenes that are just as great. The most horrific shot for me was the one-armed rubber plantation slave who in his distress looks like a zombie right out of a horror film. Then there’s the final dream vision, the only portion of the film that is in color, that feels like a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is just a fantastic work of art all around. I love how there is even a sense of humor in it. Karamakate’s unrestrained laughter is infectious as he contemplates the ridiculous customs of the whites.

Embrace of the Serpent works wonderfully to open the eyes of the world to an underappreciated culture and watching it is a mesmerizing experience. I’d consider it a genuinely great film and easily one of the best films I’ve watched recently.

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