The story of the relationship between Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his people, and two scientists who work together over the course of 40 years to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant.
One of this year’s nominees for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Academy Awards, ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is a poetic odyssey through the Amazon rivers, exploring themes such as culture, learning and colonisation through two time periods at the turn of the 20th century. Taking place in 1909 and 1940, the film follows the same Amazonian shaman as he journeys with two scientists in search of a rare and sacred plant known as yakruna. The shaman is Karamakate, played in his youth by Nilbio Torres, and as an elderly man by Antonio Bolivar. He is the last survivor of his tribe and the two scientists have much to learn from him.
I found ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ to be reminiscent of many great river movies such as ‘Apocalypse Now’ or ‘Deliverance’, mainly in the way it fully embodies its environment, almost creating a character in itself from the river and the surrounding jungle. In particular it veers closest to ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’, the great Werner Herzog movie, largely through its unbending portrayal of an otherworldly existence that feels untapped and untouched by what we westerners would class as the ‘modern’ world. The black and white cinematography is visually breathtaking and the combination with the sound design really puts the viewer into the heart of the Amazonian jungle to create a truly arresting spectacle.
The film is funnier than one would expect and the culture clash between Karamakate and the scientists is well developed, but at its heart this film is about learning and exploration. Through conversation, the film makes valuable comment on the impact of white invaders on the lands inhabited by the indigenous people, and it also reflects poetically on the changing landscape of an area so long untouched by the modern world. In that respect, the rare and sacred yakruna acts as a metaphor for Karamakate himself; a plant destined to die out, restricted to the history books, much like Karamakate’s lost tribe. The second scientist, Evan (Brionne Davis), sets out to search for the yakruna but he’ll go on to learn far more about a different approach to life and a forgotten culture soon to be dispatched to the annals of time. There’s a sad melancholy to this knowledge that underpins the overall story and I found ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ to be an incredibly poignant and thought provoking watch.
‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is unlike much you’ll see this year, a truly original work that envelops the senses and enlightens the mind. In a summer where the multiplexes are filled with sequels, reboots and a variety of mediocre fare, ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is a refreshing burst of originality.
Directed By: Ciro Guerra
Starring: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, Luigi Sciamanna, Yauenkü Migue and Nicolás Cancino