I had big plans when I first sat down to watch The Embrace of the Serpent. Armed with pen and legal pad, I resolved to record every plot point, key quote and stylistic detail. After about two minutes, my tools had fallen to the floor and I stared at the screen, mesmerized, for the next two hours.
The third major picture from director Ciro Guerra, The Embrace of the Serpent is engrossing, insightful and beautifully crafted. The film chronicles the journey of two scientists, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and Evan (Brionne Davis) as they search the Colombian Amazon for the elusive, psychedelic Yakruna plant. Native shaman Karamakate (played as a boy by Nilbio Torres, and by Antonio Bolivar as an adult), whose tribe was destroyed by colonizers when he was a child, guides both men in their travels. Theo and Evan are loosely based on historical figures, the former on German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the latter on American botanist Richard Evans Schultes. The plot draws heavily on personal accounts of their expeditions, giving the film an immersive period mood that few can match. Despite the three-decade interval between their voyages, the movie transitions seamlessly from one era to the other and concisely integrates both story lines, largely through the common presence and companionship of Karamakate.
The film quickly and masterfully transports its audience into another time and place. The entire movie is shot on location and Guerra uses it to his advantage, favoring widescreen imagery to take in as much of the jungle landscape as he can in each frame and treating the setting as a centerpiece instead of a backdrop. The soundtrack of the film consists mostly of native chants, and puts the receptive viewer in a sort of trance. The black-and-white cinematography turns the eye towards texture and lighting, creating a surreal but vivid experience. The script makes no compromise in terms of languages: the characters speak in nine of them (according to the film’s website), including English, Spanish, German and numerous Amazonian dialects. The subtitles read naturally and pass by at a reasonable rate, so that they are hardly noticeable towards the film’s conclusion. In fact, they are often rendered unnecessary: the action and expressive acting say it all.
The central strife of the film presents itself immediately, when Karamakate first refuses to help Theo, a white man, and denounces his native assistant Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) as a traitor. This conflict of cultures reappears throughout the picture, often in horrifying ways. For example, so-called “rubber barons” enslave indigenous peoples, force them to tap rubber trees, killing many by exhaustion or mistreatment in the process. That said, the film never devolves into a sentimental, oppressor-victim binary. Karamakate is proud, defiant and even scornful at times, particularly in his younger years. The movie emphasizes the agency of the indigenous peoples and their responses to white imperialism, transcending the clichés of its genre.
The imperialist conflict appears on a large scale at select points, but usually finds a more subtle, intimate expression in the disagreements between the Caucasians and Karamakate. The shaman cannot comprehend their obsession with material goods, nor can they understand his spiritual “prohibitions,” such as a dietary restriction against fish and meat during certain times of the year. These three characters face the challenge of coming to terms with the others’ perspective, generating constant tension throughout the film. Just as intense, and perhaps more surprising, is the scene in which Karamakate and Manduca argue over the right response to white oppression, considering everything from violent resistance to fostering cultural dialogue.
Despite the vast gap between our world and that of the shaman, the story explores literary situations that viewers have seen before: an old man realizes that his memory is failing and sees himself as a chullachaqui, a mere image of his former self; a bachelor mocks a romantic for writing sappy love letters to his wife back home. These moments of familiarity pull the audience further into the story world: into the old Amazon, and help us appreciate the universals of the human experience. Many of the film’s characters try to explain their cultures through analogs to each others’: comparing books to native oral storytelling traditions and hearing the songs of the ancestors via a record player. The characters swing abruptly from intimacy to hostility with each new outrage, highlighting the love-hate relationships that make the movie so well-developed and emotionally gripping.
These mixed and often contradictory feelings present a huge challenge to the cast, one which they overcome and master with apparent ease. Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis are old pros, and each of them have acted in theatrical productions and independent films beyond counting, though Bijvoet is better known for Borgman (2013) and The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012) and Davis for Narcissist (2014) and Avenged (2013). The Native American actors, Antonio Bolivar Salvador, Nilbio Torres and Miguel Dionisio Ramos are every bit as mature and talented, but with one catch: none of them had ever acted before Serpent. According to the movie website, this was their first experience in film. You wouldn’t know it to watch them. Torres as the younger Karamakate is especially gifted, and brilliantly conveys the bitterness, resolve and underlying compassion of his role. Torres referred to the film as “an homage to the memory of our elders,” wanting to express his people’s history through art. I’m happy to write that he and the rest of the cast succeeded.
The Embrace of the Serpent begins with an excerpt from Theodor’s journal that describes him as “indescribably changed” by his journey. Just as he finds it difficult to express his transformation, there are brief moments when this picture, because it tries to do so much, cannot quite capture the full effect of its subject matter. Likewise, this article certainly doesn’t do justice to the film. Go see it. Whether you happen to be interested in Latin American history and culture, or whether you just want to watch a great film, The Embrace of the Serpent offers a chance to experience — if only partially — the consciousness of another people in a riveting, stimulating and extremely entertaining way.
The Embrace of the Serpent is currently playing at Cinemapolis.
Zachary Smeader is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].