Embrace of the Serpent (2015)


Directed by Ciro Guerra
Country: Colombia / other

The excellence of Ciro Guerra’s new odyssey, “Embrace of the Serpent”, wasn’t particularly a surprise for me. The Colombian filmmaker had already conquered my respect in 2009 when he released the brilliant “The Wind Journeys”, another eventful and exploratory journey, set in the arid Colombian territories, in which a valuable accordion had to be recovered after being stolen.

For “Serpent”, an Amazonian epic inspired by the real journals of the European explorers, Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes, he engendered a totally different approach, employing an evocative black-and-white to the striking images that stubbornly remain in our minds due to the beautiful, contrasting tones, and the irreproachable compositions by the skillful cinematographer, David Gallego.

I was fascinated by the aesthetic and narrative qualities of the film, which starts by following the young, strong, and wise shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), the last survivor of his tribe after the aggressive invasion of the greedy white men with the malevolent intention to steal the rubber from their forests. Segregated and self-sufficient, Karamakate has never submitted to the white domination, fighting them bravely whenever is needed.
One day, two explorers, traveling in a boat, approach him and ask specifically for his help. One of them is Manduca (Yauenku Migue), a native member of another Amazonian tribe that gave in to the brutal white men without putting up a fight. He’s a traumatized former slave of the rubber exploration fields, who managed to become a free man. The other visitor is called Theo (Jan Bijvoet), a German scientist who has been exploring the region for four years and is very sick. According to the locals, only Karamakate can cure him through a very rare local plant.
Reluctantly, Karamakate agrees to help Theo if he accepts to be submitted to an essential spiritual and physical probation. The trio embarks on a delirious expedition in search of the miraculous plant, making occasional stops for sleeping and getting food. Firstly, they spend one night with a friendly tribe whose leader ends up stealing Theo’s compass. Days later, in need of food to proceed, they contact with a strict missionary priest who can’t refrain from whipping the local kids who disobey his orders. The last and more chaotic encounter happens when they bump into a feverish white Messiah whose followers are immersed in sickness, lust, and insanity.
Intercalated with the story of the young Karamakate, we also have the adventures of the elderly Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) who nearly 40 years later, and despite starting to forget the priceless knowledge he acquired over the years, still welcomes Evan (Brionne Davis), an insomniac American explorer who needs the sacred Yakruna plant to heal his disorder. 

Impeccably directed and flawlessly portrayed, “Embrace of the Serpent” is a spiritual experience about colonialism that not always delivers the answers we want. Its trippy finale can be seen as a sort of a freaky embellishment from the director, but is also left open to different interpretations. The eminent transcendental accessories throughout the film give us a vividly expressive perspective about the shock of different cultures, the good and the bad in the human nature, and the forever-complex relation between nature and civilization.