Embrace Of The Serpent – Review

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Filmed in stunning black and white, ‘Embrace Of The Serpent’, from Colombian Film Director and Screenwriter Ciro Guerra, quietly highlights the true cost of colonialism in South America. 

Focusing on Karamakate, an Amazonian Shaman who is the last one of his people, and the two explorers he encounters, over a period of forty years, the film was inspired by the journals of Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes, who had travelled through the Colombian Amazon region in the early-mid 20th century, on a quest to find the Yakruna plant.

Karamakate, brilliantly played by Nilbio Torres, is first introduced to us standing alone on the bank of the river, with painted face, loin cloth, feathered armbands, and a phallic-looking necklace. He stands silently rebuking a tribesman in western clothes who has come to seek his help in saving the life of gravely ill Theo von Martius (played by Belgian actor, Jan Bijvoet). 

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Karamakate’s anger at the tribesman is justified: he believes himself to be the last of his tribe, and resents the loss of the traditional ways with the coming of the white man. It’s sobering to think that this isn’t set hundreds of years ago – all the damage to the Amazonian rain forest area has only happened since the nineteenth century. The encroachment of white people in the Amazonian area has cost countless lives over the past 150 or so years. Director Ciro Guerra, in speaking to Cineaste said:

The rubber plantations are one of the darkest chapters in Colombian history. It’s horrible. The rubber industry was huge at the end of the nineteenth century and Manaus in Brazil was like Dubai is now: it was the richest city in the world, the most luxurious, because of the rubber exploitation, which was based on the slavery and decimation of hundreds of indigenous cultures, and hundreds of thousands of people. It was so brutal that it’s a story that remains hidden. It was denounced by Sir Roger Casement, the subject of Mario Vargas Llosa’s most recent novel, The Dream of the Celt. Casement exposed the rubber industry and that was one of the reasons the industry declined. But before the industry went down in the 1930s, it had already devastated the lives of thousands and thousands of people.

That was actually my first interest when I came to this story, but I realized early on that I did not want to make a story about a holocaust, a genocide. That wasn’t the movie I was making, which was more about the knowledge that was being lost. The journals of Koch-Grünberg were emphatic about that. He came to know that while making contact with this knowledge for the first time, at the same time that it was disappearing. There are quite a few of the cultures that he met, spent time with, and wrote about where the only thing we know about them is what he wrote. They disappeared completely. It was just the most savage form of capitalism, but it’s always been something like that. Before rubber, it was quina (not to be confused with quinoa). After rubber, it was coca for drug trafficking. Now it’s mining. All are examples of the destruction that is wrought by the pursuit of natural resources, which is what we see when we look at the Amazon—a surplus of natural resources.

Theo however convinces Karamakate that some of his people may yet live, further along the river, and so the Shaman agrees to go with Theo and his companion, in search of not just his people, but also the mysterious Yakruna plant, whose psychedelic properties offer a cure for the dying Theo.

Along the way they encounter many strange and wonderful places and people, including a Spanish mission run by priests who rule with terrifying amounts of corporal punishment for the most trivial of misdeeds. Karamakate admonishes a group of young native orphans, to “Never forget who you are and where you came from.”

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Forty years later, Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar) feels he is a chullachaqui – a ghostlike alter ego that is “empty, hollow…he has no memories, only drifts around the world.” He is encountered by Evan (Brionne Davis), who, inspired by Theo’s journals, has also come in search of the Yakruna plant, with the hope of cultivating it. Karamakate joins Evan, and along the way both men teach each other vital life lessons: Karamakate teaches Evan that he doesn’t need to carry as much “stuff” with him, physical, emotional, mental – “I wasn’t meant to teach my people. I was meant to teach you.” Evan in turn teaches Karamakate that not all white people are necessarily evil.

Whenever I looked at a map of my country, 
I was overwhelmed by great uncertainty.
 Half of it was an unknown territory, a green sea, of which I knew nothing.

The Amazon, that unfathomable land, which we foolishly reduce to simple concepts. Coke, drugs, Indians, rivers, war.

Is there really nothing more out there?
 Is there not a culture, a history?
 Is there not a soul that transcends?

The explorers taught me otherwise.

Those men who left everything, who risked everything, to tell us about a world
we could not imagine.
 Those who made first contact, during one of the most vicious 
holocausts man has ever seen. 
Can man, through science and art, transcend brutality? Some men did.

The explorers have told their story.
The natives haven’t.
 This is it.
 A land the size of a whole continent, yet untold. Unseen by our own cinema.

That Amazon is lost now. In the cinema, it can live again.

—CIRO GUERRA

Writer/director Ciro Guerra was born in Colombia in 1981 and studied film and television at the National University of Colombia. At the age of 21, after directing four multi-award-winning short films, he wrote and directed ‘La Sombra Del Caminante’ (‘The Wandering Shadows’), his feature directorial debut, which won awards at the San Sebastian, Toulouse, Mar de Plata, Trieste, Havana, Quito, Cartagena, Santiago, and Warsaw film festivals. His second feature film, ‘Los Viajes Del Viento’ (‘The Wind Journeys’), was part of the Official Selection – Un Certain Regard of the Cannes Film Festival in 2009.  It was released in 17 countries and selected by 90 festivals, receiving different awards in Cannes, Santa Barbara, Malaga, Santiago, Bogota, and Cartagena.  It was recently selected in a national critic’s poll as one of the 10 most important Colombian films.  All of Guerra’s feature films to date have been chosen to represent Colombia in the Academy Awards.

‘Embrace Of The Serpent’ is released in UK cinemas tomorrow, June 10. See the official website for further details.

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