Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Uninterested in telling a story with a typical arc, “Embrace of the Serpent” shares many positive qualities with Werner Herzog’s masterpiece “Fitzcarraldo” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” Sure, these three pictures involve a journey but, more importantly, they are about men who partake on a quest with a goal that is very likely impossible to achieve. The movie is beautiful in terms of aesthetic and soul, it brings up a lot of philosophical questions about how we live our lives, and it challenges us to look into the darkness that each character bears.

There are two stories running in parallel. The past involves a German ethnographer who seeks the help a shaman—the last of his tribe—living in the Amazon rainforest. Theodor (Jan Bijvoet), who is deathly ill, believes that Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) knows the whereabouts of a plant called “yakruna,” known to be a sort of panacea which just so happens to be sacred in the eyes of Karamakate’s tribe. A few decades later, Evan (Brionne Davis), a botanist, follows the tracks of Theodor—who published a book that recounted his experiences in the Amazon—in order to find the same plant. Evan is convinced the yakruna would cure his lack of dreams.

In every stopover of the journey, there is someone worth meeting and something worth listening to. Particularly memorable is the visit to an enclave with a priest who leads and young people from various tribes being converted to Christianity. We learn by watching. We take note how the priest reacts to outsiders. We observe how the children obey the priest’s exact commands.

But we also learn how the children are like when the old man is not around. They try to uphold the law. They remind one another it is considered paganism to speak in another language other than Spanish, especially one’s mother tongue. When the indigenous children act upon their curiosity to explore their own roots, they are tied to a post and whipped until their backs reveal their flesh. All of this unfold within ten to fifteen minutes of the film’s two-hour running time. The picture moves at a constant pace for there are more to see and experience.

The tribesman and the white man of both periods challenge each other with questions. We anticipate the answers. Karamakate asks Theodor why he carries so much stuff with him. To the Amazonian, materialism is a form of enslavement. Theodor tells his companion his belongings are knowledge—proof for the scientific community and the world. The implication is that knowledge can set people free. Therefore, how can his possessions—even though they slow down the expedition—be considered as chains?

Although the film is shot in black in white, appropriate given the themes of time and dreams, there is a richness to the images. I found myself paying special attention to each tribe encountered—how the paintings on the bodies differ within and outside of their communities. For example, in general, women tend to have less paintings or markings on their skin. When outsiders come, men tend to be at the forefront, women remain in the background. Clearly there is a hierarchy in each faction. I enjoyed that the material does not bother to explain. Finer details of culture are there to be noticed if one chose to look at different parts of a shot outside of those intended to be the focal point.

“El abrazo de la serpiente,” directed by Ciro Guerra, offers a rare experience in that it attempts to expand the viewers’ horizons. There are so many movies released on a weekly basis that don’t even bother to aspire to be anything more than mere triviality, let alone try to get us to think beyond the plot-subplot formula. The filmmakers should be proud of their work here because they created a project that deserves to be remembered for a long time.

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