by Matt Levine
Ripples on the surface of the Amazon River form the first image of Embrace of the Serpent, shimmering in black-and-white and seeming to conceal something unknown inside. From the very start, the film reveals its links to surrealism, specifically when one character implores another (before a transcendental drug trip) to experience a world “realer than reality,” recalling one of surrealism’s main credos: that there’s a hidden layer of reality right before our eyes, one that we could see if only we looked hard enough. The surrealism of Embrace of the Serpent, though, is different, more melancholy and more humane. It stems from the belief that human life is all interconnected, diverging from a spiritual place that may or may not be found within the jungles of the Amazon.
Director: Ciro Guerra
Producer: Cristina Gallego
Writer: Ciro Guerra
Cinematographer: David Gallego
Editor: Etienne Boussac
Music: Nascuy Linares
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenkü Migue, Nicolás Cancino, Luigi Sciammana
Countries: Colombia/Venezuela/ Argentina
Premiere: May 15, 2015 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 17, 2016
US Distributor: Oscilloscope
Our sometimes unwilling guide on this strange quest is Karamakate, a shaman whose tribe has almost entirely died out, thanks mostly to the destruction and exploitation brought by white imperialists. We follow him on two different journeys: in 1909, Karamakate is enlisted by a German explorer named Theodor von Martius and his Amazonian aide, Manduca, after Theo falls prey to one of the jungle’s deadly diseases. Theo can only be healed by a plant called yakruna, which (if it isn't already extinct) can be found on the land of Karamakate’s tribe. Having isolated himself in the rainforest, apparently sickened by the slow destruction of his world and his people, Karamakate agrees to guide Theo and Manduca, perhaps in order to reconnect with his kinsmen—or maybe because he guardedly believes Manduca’s promise that Theo is a respected scientist who will spread word about the Amazonian tribes and their endangerment.
Some time later, an older Karamakate happens to meet an American botanist named Evans, who has read Theodor’s earlier journals and has voyaged to the Amazon to find the sacred yakruna plant. The costuming and Karamate’s appearance suggest that several decades have passed, but the time that has elapsed between the movie’s two storylines is thrown into question by Karamakate late in the film: “I killed you too, before, in time without time,” he says to Evans, “yesterday, 40 years, maybe 100, or a million years ago.” This is one of many ways in which time, space, and reality (at least our conceptions of them) are dislodged by the film.
The older Karamakate, resigned and melancholy, says he agrees to help Evans thanks to a vision he has after drinking a hallucinogenic brew called caapi. The vision includes a jaguar and an anaconda (a scene that receives astounding visual treatment later in the film); Karamakate interprets it to mean that he must guide the white man to his ancestral home and instill in him “the full knowledge of my people,” something that can only be achieved by imbibing the yakruna plant. But the true nature of their relationship won’t be revealed until they make it to the heart of the rainforest and find the last remaining yakruna plant—indeed (though it sounds hyperbolic to say so), the relationships of all human beings to each other takes on new meaning in this scene, making Embrace of the Serpent as much a humanist masterpiece as a visceral one.
The film cuts between these storylines in a graceful manner, often suggesting how much has changed and how little—in other words, how the exploitation of the river basin by white intruders has only intensified, further fracturing the remaining tribes and their peoples. The clearest and most disturbing illustration of this idea is a Spanish mission that Karamakate finds in both journeys. In 1909, while guiding Theo and Manduca, Karamakate finds a mission ruled over by a priest who can only be described as benevolently sadistic. Preaching love and “saving the souls” of boys orphaned by the “rubber wars,” the priest lashes them and forces them to forget their old language; when he briefly kisses one of the boys on the cheek, something even more unsettling is implied. A young and headstrong Karamakate inspires some kind of mini-revolt, but when he and Evans return many years later, the same mission has become a horrifying hell on earth—an Apocalypse Now-like vision of madness masquerading as holiness. Their leader has become a deranged man who proclaims himself the only sacred thing in the jungle; eventually he offers his own flesh to his people as the “body of the lord,” culminating in what Karamakate calls “the worst of both worlds.” These might be Embrace of the Serpent’s most pessimistic scenes, portraying what happens when wildly different cultures collide in one of the natural world’s wildest terrains—the cultures not only of Catholicism and animistic folklore, but also of Western capitalism and indigenous, self-sufficient sects.
In these early scenes, Embrace of the Serpent recalls the dreamlike intensity of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now: the story of narrow-minded men driven mad by the infinite jungles. As the film proceeds, however, you realize this is not the story of the white men who come to this world, but of Karamakate, who becomes a tragic and extremely moving character. Initially, he is disdainful of whites (reasonably, since they destroyed much of his land and culture) and would rather erase evidence of his people than share their existence with the world. In the latter-day story, though, Karamakate—his memory failing and his connection to other people almost nonexistent—seems to have a new respect for the harmony of all humanity and the importance of inscribing one’s culture for the sake of future generations. Embrace of the Serpent boldly conveys the violent clash of cultures and the brutality of which people are capable, but its message is reticently hopeful: we should start thinking of ourselves as a collective human race rather than a network of warring clans. (I wonder if writer-director Ciro Guerra had ISIS or Donald Trump in mind when delivering this message.)
Incredibly rich and complex, Embrace of the Serpent also has the benefit of a stunning aesthetic to convey its ideas. Some might be disappointed that Guerra and his cinematographer, David Gallego, chose to shoot in black-and-white 35mm, depriving us of the lush greens and deep blues of the Amazon river basin, but the monochrome look further emphasizes the tone of dreamlike reality, evoking a world more real than reality. (Black-and-white also makes sense considering Guerra was inspired by the travel journals of real-life explorers Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes, whose written descriptions and black-and-white images are the only known accounts of many Amazonian cultures.) The sight of the Amazon sparkling in the sunlight or a close-up of a snake’s spitting tongue as a jaguar approaches are made more beautiful (and certainly more strange) by their lack of color. The soundtrack, meanwhile, offers an onslaught of blaring insects, whispering water, and distant animal cries, making this world sound infinite and untamable, as though it stretches beyond the movie-theater screen in every direction.
If Embrace of the Serpent at first recalls Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now, it ultimately reminded me of another dreamlike film that deserves more recognition: Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen (1987), a Malian film in the Bambara and Fula languages based on a legend set in the 13th century. There are no white outsiders in Cissé’s film, but like Embrace of the Serpent it relies on the myths of pre-modern religions to evoke a magical world (literally, as sorcery and witchcraft play major roles) in which the preservation of culture and ancestry is vitally important. Also like Yeelen, Embrace of the Serpent emphasizes the importance of cultural heritage but also asks for one culture of humankind in coexistence. “This film,” reads a closing title crawl, “is dedicated to all the peoples whose song we will never know.” Even more than its overwhelming images or its surrealist sequences, Embrace of the Serpent might be most powerful for the respect it pays to people who almost never serve as film protagonists. The song of Karamakate, in this case, is one unlike anything you’ve heard before.