English Title: Embrace of the Serpent
Original title: El abrazo de la serpiente
Country: Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina
Language: Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin
Genre: Adventure, Drama, History
Director: Ciro Guerra
Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
based on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg
and Richard Evans Schultes
Music: Nascuy Linares
Cinematography: David Gallego
Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s third feature, a stunning-looking black-and-white adventurer recounts a shaman Karamakate’s two quests of a sacred plant “yakruna” in the Amazonian jungle, on the request of two white scientists.
The first one takes place around 1909, a young Karamakate (Torres) is approached by an afflicted German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Bijvoet, blistering with crazed assurance against his sickly incarnation) and his indigenous travel companion Manduca (Migue), to help them to find the plant to cure Theodor; and the second time happens in 1940s, a senile Karamakate (Bolivar) accompanies Richard Evans Schultes (Davis), an American biologist, to locate the last extant yakruna in the world.
The two paralleled narratives sail shoulder by shoulder with sublime transitions from one to another, Karamakate, is the last survivor of his tribe, adheres to the wisdom and traditions which have passed on for generations among his people, only soon will die with him – respect the jungle and revere the nature. The dissonance between him and his travel companions has never ceased to exist, it is not just as simple as the conflicting battle between the invading colonists and the aboriginal, Karamakate also deems Migue as a “betrayer” of his own kind, a former rubber slave has regained his freedom thanks to Theodor, adopts western attire and offers Theodor his utmost loyalty.
En route, there are encounters with other dwellers of the jungle, a native tribe offers them hospitality but also has no qualm to steal Theodor’s compass just because; a rubber slave pleads for death when Manduca upsets his rubber cans since it is nothing but demise awaits him if he fails to collect enough rubber; a puritan friar (Sciamanna), wantonly flogging local orphan boys by taking them under the wings of Christianity; more idiosyncratically, a self-claimed white-skin Messiah (Cancino), abuses his despotic reign over his ignorant followers, at the same place where the friar was almost 40-years later, its bacchanalian idiocy slyly signifies that idolatry and cannibalism are just one step away from each other.
In these two journeys’ final destinations, Kaiamakate takes on two polarising roles, one is the destroyer and another is the saviour, from a hotheaded stud orphaned and disoriented by rapacious intruders, and is desperate to preserve whatever has left in his knowledge vis-à-vis his people’s heritage and erudition, to a sage old shaman can preach his philosophy with an even-tempered otherworldliness, the film surpasses its default vocation as an ethnographic curio and a shrewd moral tale pressurising on cultural diversity, reaches the stratosphere of spiritual equanimity, in its sole coloured images, a transcendental pattern of anacondas offers an abstruse glimpse of the origin of the universe, and bookends the mythical realm with elucidating symbolism. The film is a marvellous feat, scintillating with visual wonderment (luxuriates in the monochromatic purity) and thought-provoking humanity. Bravo to a young director emerging from a strange land.