As TIFF 2015 comes to a close, my festival experience ended on an ethereal high with an outstanding Colombian film. Directed by Ciro Guerra, Embrace of the Serpent is a hypnotizing look at the Amazon rainforest and its varied inhabatants. With the feel of an epic tome, it tells two interconnected stories about the dying indigenous cultures and the effect of Western influence.
The parrallel stories are connected through one individual, an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate, who is the last of his people. Throughout his life, he is encountered by two separate explorers, both seeking the rare Yakruna plant and its healing powers. The first was a German scientist named Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) who arrived in 1909 and established relatively peaceful relations with the native people. The second was an American named Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), who was inspired by Koch-Grunberg’s diaries and came in 1940 to complete the work. Over the course of these two adventures, we see how Karamakate and his cultures became irreparably affected by these men and others, as the film takes us on an existential journey through land, time and cultures forgotten.
Embrace of the Serpent begins with a portentous introduction that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Karamakate sits along the river banks of the Amazon, when a small boat approaches. Aboard is an Amazon native already acclimatized to Western clothing, and a German scientist Theodor, who has taken ill. Known as a powerful shaman, Karamakate is asked to heal the sick man. But Karamakate is apprehensive, knowing the exploitative nature of white men, which had already led to the destruction of his people and their way of life.
He is of course, completely justified in his antagonistic stance, armed with a spear by his side. But although the film is shot in stunning black-and-white, the story is much more nuanced than a simple “good native vs bad colonist” cliche. Indeed, Karamakate eventually strikes up a friendly relationship with Theodor, as they work together to achieve their goals – to find the remaining survivors of Karamakate’s people and to find the sacred Yakruna plant.
And as we follow them on this quest – mirrored by Richard’s own adventure in the future – this eloquent screenplay explores the complex interplay between the men and their cultures with clear-eyed honesty. One scene in particular stands out, when Theodor socializes with a group of natives, demonstrating some of his Western culture through music and dance, as well as the advanced technology of a compass. But when the time comes to leave, Theodor graciousness turns to anger, when the people attempt to keep the compass in exchange for one of their crafts. He claims that a compass would negatively alter their traditions, to which Karamakate replies, “You cannot forbid them to learn. Knowledge belongs to all men.”
All throughout, Embrace of the Serpent provides similarly incisive commentary on the enduring legacy of colonialism and oppression. Even today, we often exoticize and marvel at how admirably primitive these cultures are, but when asked to share in their experiences, we refuse. Just like how Theodor and Richard cling to their worldly belongings in the film.
But the spirituality of the Amazon still shines through, enriched by the vivid sounds and sights of the flora and fauna. There’s a lingering sense of danger (and incidents of madness which would make Werner Herzog proud), most potently symbolized by the bleeding rubber trees, physical evidence of the invaders’ ulterior motives. In spite of this sinister undercurrent however, there’s a meditative serenity to Guerra’s direction, culminating in a final sequence which elevates this transcendent masterwork to a near-religious experience.