Embrace of the Serpent Review
Directed by Columbian Ciro Guerra, Embrace of the Serpent is a beautifully executed offering, which subtly showcases the conflict between man and nature. Guerra, using the Amazon as his canvas (which he lovingly renders in black and white cinematography), produces a film that transcends the barriers of the screen and becomes a visual piece of artwork.
The film relays two parallel stories that both take place in the Columbian rainforest, but set years apart in 1909 and 1940 and featuring a young and old Karamakate, played by Niblio Tores and Antonio Bolivar respectively. Karamakate is an Amazonian shaman, the last survivor of the Cohiuano, a tribe that has been killed off by the rubber barons, and our guide through the dangerous wonders of the Amazon.
Embrace of the Serpent is loosely inspired by diaries written by two scientists – the German Theodor Koch-Grunberg, played by Jan Bijvoet, and the American Richard Evans Schultes, played by Brionne Davis – during their field work in the Amazon. The crux of both the film and the diaries is an exhaustive search from the rare yakruna plant, a sacred psychotropic healing flower; however this journey also involves the unintentional discovery of various remote tribes, who are sometimes inviting and at other times threateningly hostile.
The film also explores the introduction of Christianity to the region; indeed Schultes and Karamakate are even held captive at one point by a tribe lead by a Spanish settler, who is something of a wannabe Christ-like figure – he has the men in his tribe self-flagellate to absolve themselves from their supposed sins. Guerra is not afraid to portray Christianity, and its related colonisation, as a destructive force to the indigenous life of the Amazon rainforest.
You might imagine that Guerra’s use of black and white is bizarre and indeed contrary to the richness of colour one expects from the rainforest, however it actually allows viewers to focus in on the sheer depth of the landscape and the incredible details of the plants and animals themselves; Guerra’s use of black and white cinematography recalls early silver-gelatine prints. Also the various shades of black and white, give the entire piece a film-noir bent, transporting us to the early twentieth century; although there is a final scene in which Schultes undergoes a tribal initiation – Karamakate rubs his body with yakruna plant ash and Schultes’ ensuing trip is rendered in an explosion of kaleidoscopic colour.
Embrace of the Serpent is a masterpiece; not only is it consistently visually arresting, but Guerra perfectly balances this with pathos – at the heart of the film is an emotive and tragic narrative, one which can be easily guessed at. There is so much sadness here; as Karamakate mourns the loss of his people, the scientists act like confused and lost children, utterly unable to take in the enormity of the rainforest or utilise their instincts. The scientists, like so many explorers before them, are completely reliant on Karamakate and the indigenous people of the region and despite what this discovery and colonisation ultimately means for the Cohiuano tribe, they do help them. Embrace of the Serpent is a lesson in humanity and it strives to show how being in-tune with nature and ones’ inner self is just as powerful as intellectual concerns and science.