Ciro Guerra’s beautifully filmed black-and-white drama Embrace of the Serpent drops us deep into the Amazonian jungle of Colombia, at the beginning of the last century. There, a shaman named Karamakate lives alone, the last survivor of his tribe. Then the river brings him visitors — a German explorer named Theo (Jan Bivot) and his native guide. They are searching for a rare plant, the yakruna, reputed to have healing properties. Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) agrees to take them on a river journey to search for it.
Then, as easily as the river slips by, the story shifts to the 1940s, when an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar Salvador) is approached by another white outsider, an American named Evan (Brionne Davis), who also seeks the yakruna. The same journey is commenced, and the film continues to slide between the two time-frames.
- Last of his tribe: Karamakate (Nilbio Torres)
Director Guerra found inspiration from the real-life Amazon explorations of two men, Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes, undertaken respectively during the film’s two time periods. But notably, the story is told not from the perspective of the explorers, but from that of the indigenous people. Central to this are non-Western storytelling aspects such as a fluid sense of time and space, mystical interpretations and a reliance on natural order.
There is an element of adventure to the film, as the men encounter other groups along the river and navigate some fraught situations, all while negotiating an uneasy cooperation across cultures. And always, Serpent is an elegy for lost people, places, culture, flora and fauna. The younger Karamakate tries to preserve what he can, pleading with forcibly converted native children at a monastery, “Don’t let our song fade away.” Later, the older Karamakate bemoans, “I forgot mambe exists. And now I don’t know how to make it.” It falls to the outsider Evan, who has studied Amazonian culture in books complied by white explorers, to teach him.
The destruction of Karamakate’s world comes from two particularly devastating colonial forces — the Catholic Church and rubber plantations, both represented here in quietly horrifying scenes. (The mid-century return to the monastery where the younger Karamakate met the children is a nightmarish jumble of Catholicism and atavistic savagery.)
Serpent tells of a time, world and way of life now lost, ironically preserved only in pieces, on documents recorded by outsiders. Today, in the jungles, there are only the ghosts of extinct tribes, like that of Karamakate’s people, killed off by the rubber industry. But troubling forces — the exploitation of resources, the homogenizing of cultures, the primacy of urbanization — continues, as does man’s struggle to embrace and find harmony with the natural world.