By: Jacob J. Mouradian
Irrationality, fear, rage, vengeance, and insanity — essentially, the dark side of human behavior — is more terrifying than any sort of monster you’ll see, as all good horror filmmakers know. To call Ciro Guerra’s Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent a horror film would certainly be a stretch but it succeeds in revealing the depravity of men in a wilderness setting, as well as their struggle to maintain their character, morality, and livelihood by the end of it.
The film, which won the Director’s Fortnight Art Cinema Award during last year’s Cannes Film Festival, borrows heavily from the diaries of both German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American biologist Richard Evans Schultes, whom the film’s closing footnote designates as two of the few people who studied the indigenous cultures of the Amazon region (many of which that have since vanished) in accurate detail. Though existing decades apart, their journeys in the film are connected through Karamakate, a lone Amazonian shaman existing on the fringes of the rainforest.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the younger Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) comes across the ailing Theo (a fictionalized version of Koch-Grunberg, portrayed by Jan Bijvoet) and his assistant, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), who are in search of a cure for Theo’s disease (assumedly malaria). Karamakate tells the two travelers that the only cure for Theo rests in the spiritual plant known as the yakruna yet he refuses to help them search for it, scoffing at the prospect of helping a white man continue with his colonial exploration (and dually ashamed at Manduca, an indigenous man from another tribe, for helping him along). But upon learning that Theo has made contact with his own tribe, whom he has long believed to have been killed off by barons of rubber plantations, Karamakate begrudgingly offers to act as a guide, and they begin their long journey down the river to the sacred plant.
Interspersed with this tale is that of Karamakate’s second one, set almost forty years later at the onset of World War II. An American explorer and botanist, Evan (a fictionalized version of Schultes, portrayed by Brionne Davis), encounters an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) still living in solitude in the Colombian Amazon. Evan discovers artwork by Karamakate that closely resembles the yakruna, the plant which he, too, is searching for. (“I’ve dedicated my whole life to plants,” Evan says, to which Karamakate replies “That’s the most reasonable thing I’ve ever heard a white say”.) In his older age Karamakate believes he has essentially lost his essence of being, vaguely recalling situations related to Evan’s travels but not being able to remember details of any kind. He decides to join Evan as his guide through the forest, hoping to kickstart his memories back into existence while also to teach Evan to respect the rainforest’s power as an ecological entity.
Despite comparisons to other man-against-nature films Embrace of the Serpent has garnered, the untamed wilderness is not the prominent villain of Guerra’s cinematic expedition. At its heart instead is a clash of cultures, and the divide that it’s created over the past hundreds of years (and continues to create into the future). However, unlike with similar tales in western cinema there’s no need for a white protagonist to be the audience’s lead-in to the disastrous effects of Eurocentric colonialism. While the film is spurred by Theo and Evan’s expeditions, it is Karamakate’s struggles that take precedence. While he is a cold and at times unwelcoming person, his intense commitment to his culture is what holds our focus. He witnesses the atrocities of the Europeans firsthand and the viewers see them through such a filter: he’s terrified when a disfigured native man begs for death after Manduca destroys a rubber harvesting station; he’s infuriated when he sees native children get beaten by a Capuchin priest for reverting back to their indigenous culture, only to later to see them over-run the monastery with a perverted and bastardized version of Christianity (to which he declares they have “become the worst of both worlds”); and he’s heartbroken to see other natives so lightly disregard their ancestors’ sacred traditions. Both Torres and Bolivar excel at showcasing these emotions at different intervals of Karamakate’s life, showing how regardless of age their anger is still there but how it transformed throughout the years as a result of changing circumstances.
And yet, despite all of this destruction, Karamakate still puts in the effort to help these two white explorers. To him, even beyond the color of their skin, they are still implausible: both Theo and Evan put so much value into material possessions — something that Karamakate can’t understand; Theo, though relatively open-minded, still gets aggressive when the indigenous people’s customs can’t get through his own mental barrier, from abstaining from eating meat and fish to expressions of gratitude through gifts; similarly, Evan doesn’t see anything to the forest besides its immediate physical benefits or its political and economic implications. But Karamakate still powers through all of their biases to help them, and to educate them, about life in the Amazon. As Manduca tries to explain to him, if they can’t educate the whites then there’s no hope — a clever inversion of colonialist European logic that paints the whites as the “uncivilized” ones for a change. Whether Karamakate subscribes to this egalitarian viewpoint or is just in it for his own spiritual benefit is unclear, but he sees it through to the end–even if it spans forty years and mountains of residual turmoil.
Guerra has an interesting approach to the work, contrasting unnerving scenes of conflict with tranquil river rides, yet always maintaining a sense of discomforting tension throughout. Granted, some of the scenes tend to stretch on long enough that they begin to feel like a retread, and by the film’s third act it feels as if the thematic prowess is being stretched a bit thin. However, enough action and mystery exists to keep one piqued on the cross-country journey’s final destination. The black-and-white 35mm camerawork is a nice addition, too, showing the forest (and perhaps the earthly world in general) as stark as it does beautiful, with the camera gliding above the water or floating through the trees after the characters and subtle effects included that gently toe the edges of surrealism.
Embrace of the Serpent is thus, like its subject, a bit of an expedition that is a challenge to traverse. But its trip’s prolonged tension and its enduring themes of survival, both in the physical and cultural sense of the word, are compelling enough to make it well worth a hike.