Only three months in, and 2016 has already offered me six films that would easily fit upon a best of the year list. But Embrace of the Serpent is the movie I treasure most.
So intense and immersive was the experience of seeing this film that I walked out of the cinema dazzled, in a near-dissociative state. Its story of colonial exploitation of South American tribes calls to mind Roland Joffe’s 1986 tale of Jesuits in the jungle, The Mission. Its brink of insanity, hallucinatory vividness reminds me of Werner Herzog’s unforgettable movies with Klaus Kinski unhinged in South America, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
Yet, Embrace of the Serpent is marvelous on its own terms. Loosely inspired by the journals of two scientists’ explorations in the South American rain forest, this Colombian film was directed and co-authored by Ciro Guerra.
Guerra’s film shifts back and forth in time between the adventures of German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Theo) in 1909 and Boston botanist Richard Evans Schultes (Evan) in 1940. The bridge across the decades is the shaman Karamakate, the last survivor of the Cohiuano tribe, who aids each scientist in his river travels by dugout canoe.
Each of these individuals is an interesting character study. With his straw hat and scraggly beard, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) resembles Vincent van Gogh in countenance. In his encounters with tribes along the river, it’s evident that Theo loves and respects these people. His bond with his Colombian travel companion Manduca also reveals his tenderness.
By contrast, Evan (Brionne Davis) is more sphinxlike in his motivations. A colder pragmatist, it’s unclear whether material gain or scientific curiosity drives his explorations. The shaman Karamakate discerns this conflict, telling Evan that there are two men warring inside of him.
Director Ciro Guerra smartly chose to have two actors portray Karamakate. When Theo meets him, young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) stands tall, with nothing but muscle on his magnificent frame. Scornful of the white man’s presence in the jungle, the shaman requires some persuading by Manduca to tend to the febrile and gravely ill Theo.
By 1940, Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) is soft in body and mind. His flesh now sags, and he laments his fading memory. Where he perceives a dual personality in Evan, he contrastingly bemoans his transformation into an empty shell, a ghostly chullachaqui. When the aged shaman agrees to accompany Evan in a search for the trance-inducing yakruna flower, he clearly wants to aid his own recall as much as help the botanist.
It is to the film’s credit that, for all of his wisdom, Karamakate is far too complex to be yet another stereotypical noble savage. Isolation and trauma have worn away most of his kindness, leaving behind sharp edges and bitterness.
In the dual timelines of Embrace of the Serpent, the shaman and scientists encounter horrifying signs of colonialization that took my breath away with the power of their depictions. The depredations of the rubber plantation barons show up most evidently in the mutilated slaves who in turn scar the rubber trees to drain their sap. One pathetic worker pleads with Theo and Manduca to kill him and end his miserable existence. Tiny wooden crosses scattered through the jungle attest to the humans sacrificed to the god of commerce.
The crosses signify another dreadful colonial presence. Further downriver, Theo, Manduca, and Karamakate encounter a Catholic mission that takes in child orphans of the rubber trade. The deranged Capuchin monk there forbids his charges to speak their native “pagan” language and ruthlessly beats them for showing interest in Karamakate’s plant knowledge. For his part, the shaman ridicules the monk for propagating a tale about eating the bodies of their gods.
In a seamless shift to 1940, Evan and Karamakate’s return to this same site is the most surreal interlude of the film. In the shaman’s words, the Indians have grotesquely melded together the worst of two cultures.
For the overall power of Embrace of the Serpent, much praise is due David Gallego’s black and white cinematography. At first I questioned his decision to eliminate color and lose all of those splendid green jungle hues. It wasn’t long, though, before I surrendered to Gallego’s choice. Everything contrasts and stands out more vividly across the black/gray/white continuum: the scars on Manduca’s back (from beatings by his former masters), the fire-cast night shadows in the jungle, the dark mounds of the Cerros de Mavicure rising from the wetlands. Director and cinematographer both made excellent use of their eight weeks filming in the Amazonia region of Colombia.
We also catch occasional glimpses of wildlife, including a bathing tapir, but most significantly the jaguar and anaconda of local mythology. And the importance of preserving myths and acquiring knowledge is the strand that winds river-like across both timelines of Embrace of the Serpent.
The gaining of knowledge shows up of course in the perpetual writing and drawing of both scientists, but also in the desire of the Indians to learn the use of Theo’s compass. But most importantly, Guerra’s film hones in on the crucial task of preserving cultural history. In one touching scene, Evan plays Haydn’s Creation on the phonograph he’s lugged through the jungle. Karamakate exhorts Evan to hold onto his home’s origin myth, just as he tells him to pass along his people’s myth of their land’s creation by the anaconda god. “Don’t let our song fade away,” the shaman beseeches the scientist.
Guerra’s film title no doubt refers to the god of the Cohiuano mythos. But as I wrote this review, I couldn’t help wondering if Embrace of the Serpent is also a subtle nod to the snake of the Judeo-Christian creation story. Though allegedly a villain, who would want to resist the serpent’s promise of knowledge and wisdom? Once this fruit is tasted, what right-minded person would turn back?
In a similar fashion, Embrace of the Serpent is an irresistible cinematic feast. More than any film so far in 2016, I look forward to seeing it again, as I’m confident there is more yet to be discovered and savored.
5 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: Embrace of the Serpent has not been rated by the MPAA, but contains some violence, drug use, and brief sexuality/nudity. I would not recommend viewing by youngsters 13 and under.)