A powerful insight into Amazonian thought and experience of the world we live in, Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s third film, Embrace of the Serpent, holds a strong message about not only preservation, but also a balance between man and nature on a higher level than just our senses. The film, screening in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, is based on the expeditions and works of explorers Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Borgman‘s Jan Bijvoet) and Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), almost 40 years apart. The film ruminates strongly not just on the clash of cultures between the indigenous Amazonians and these two men, but also on Western exploitation of the region in the first half of the 20th century through the vast harvesting of rubber, for which the indigenous were used as slaves. Embrace of the Serpent tries to explore the transcendent way Amazonians regard life and nature, beyond our senses, which they often try to reach through the use of hallucinogens provided by nature. Dreams and memories are an important aspect of Amazonian life, and it is through dreams that they feel they define their relationship with nature, or the Anaconda as they call it (referenced in the title).
The journeys of these explorers, decades apart, are linked by shaman Karamakate, who accompanies both when they go in search of a sacred plant with great healing powers called yakruna. Through hardship, mistrust, betrayal and friendship, the bonds between the two Westerners and this enigmatic man grow strong, as he tries to teach them to open up their minds, to preserve memories not just through earthly possessions, and to learn how to dream so they can transcend their earthly relationship with nature. Throughout all this, there is a strong feeling of Western encroachment in the area and the devastating effect this has on Amazonian culture, even if the ominous ‘rubber barons’ that represent the pinnacle of evil to the indigenous people are never actually shown. These effects are shown through the parallels in their journeys, as Karamakate and Evans revisit places the shaman went before with his German companion. For Karamakate this is also a journey of remembrance, as he tries to go from chullachaqui, an empty shell of a human being, to a man attuned to the world surrounding him again. Both Westerners may have set out to explore a culture and nature, but in the end they learn most about themselves.
Shot in stark, crisp black and white (except for a short sequence near the end), the cinematography fits the film like a glove, not only aesthetically but also thematically, as it takes the focus away from what our senses (in this case sight) detect, and moves it towards the relationship of the men. Sound design is strong too, sparse but very detailed, which again is important in its marriage to how important listening is for the Amazonians. Both Western actors deliver strong performances, Bijvoet’s wobbly German (the actor is Belgian) more than compensated by his committed portrayal. The actors must have felt they were going on a bit of a madcap adventure, as the whole film was shot on location, the first time a film has done that in 30 years. Karamakate, both the younger and the older version, are played by non-pro Amazonian actors, who admirably manage to fuse the two versions of their character. The chemistry between Bijvoet and his indigenous counterpart is especially strong, and the fact that he plays this role in three languages, none of them his own, is an impressive feat. Embrace of the Serpent is a hard film to digest quickly, and it actually goes against the whole idea of the film (but this is movie criticism in the 21st century, so we’re doing it anyway), but the kind of film that lingers in the mind for months, and requires multiple viewings. This may be a hard sell to anyone outside hardcore art house fiends, but its deeply humanistic and even transcendent heart should appeal to a larger crowd.