On surface level, Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent is a biting indictment of white imperial colonialism, and the toxic religion that runs parallel to such invasion. At its heart however the film is a moving celebration of Amazonian people, mythology and spirituality, and a rallying cry for the importance of sharing knowledge, open-mindedness, and respect for the land.
Sharing similarities with the dark maddening journey of Apocalypse Now, and the alienating black and white of Deadman, Serpent manages to paint a more uplifting picture amidst the shady corners of the rainforest. The narrative, divided into timelines with a 40-year rift between them, sees two western botanists and explorers in search of a sacred (and fictional) Yakruna plant, a slice of nature tied to the healing spirituality of the indigenous cultures, and the commercial potential of the rubber trade. Our guide, and our point-of-view through both tales is that of Shaman-warrior Karamakate, a muscular, isolated ‘world mover’ who is the last of his tribe, played with stoic vigour by Nilbio Torres, a young indigenous man who had never seen a film before this one in which he stars.
Antonio Bolivar plays the elder Karamakate, found drawing random murals into rocks, the meanings of which are long lost on him. He is depressed as he has become what Amazonian culture refers to as a ‘Chullachaqui’: a doppelgänger of yourself, but hollow and empty, drifting through time with no memories and no dreams. In the world of Serpent, dreams and spirits are as important as fact and science, and the idea of a ‘Chullachaqui’ has alarming resonance to our modern neoliberal society, where our dreams are hijacked by advertisements, and our communication is done by a social media avatar not resembling our true selves.
The film is rife with textual and visual metaphors. The black and white is some of the most sumptuous imagery of recent memory. Shot astonishingly on 35mm in the heart of the jungle, Guerra and cinematographer David Gallego create a timeless, alien land. By stripping away colour you strip away of level of visual information, and it begins as a hostile environment. No separation exists between man and landscape, the safe, warm glow of a campfire is lost, and instead dimly lit figures protrude out of the blackness behind them like ghosts of times gone by. Only right at the end does the film reveal the importance of its monochromatic choice in an explosive hallucinatory sequence. When Nilbio Torres saw it for the first time, he said he was so scared he almost fainted.
Guerra’s depiction of the two ‘whites’, based on real botanists and explorers, is an interesting and layered one. Theo, a German explorer who comes to Karamakate’s home infected with Malaria, insists he is here to learn. His assistant, Manduca, whom Theo saved from slavery at a rubber plantation, defends the white man in front of Karamakate – ‘he’s done more for our people than you have!’. The second explorer, Evan, a balding and bespectacled American man seems a murkier character. He brandishes two dollars in exchange for Karamakate’s help; ‘I can give you a lot of money’, to which Karamakate replies, ‘Ants like money. I don’t, it tastes bad’. Evan claims he’s on a spiritual search for the ability to dream, something he says he has lost, but he has other desires, and it is only with Karamakate’s guiding hand that he is truly enlightened.
The river which bends through the Amazon and the persistent water that flows through it travel through the fabric of the film in a similar way. Crossing between timelines without cutting, the water connects the two stories visually, enforcing the dreamlike way which these two tales drift off into memory; at once tangible and then immediately lost. Guerra lingers on shots of the land reflected onto the water, constantly shifting and distorting, inviting us to explore a reality beyond our own.
Along the journey and across both timelines the explorers visit the ruined remains of a missionary church. We see the scraps of Western religion hanging on to the power it has over the indigenous people. In our first timeline we see a priest taking in orphans of the rubber trade, of which Karamakate himself was, and then whipping their native ‘pagan’ tongue out of them, ‘saving’ them from a ‘savage, cannibal’ existence. When we return 40 years later, the children have grown up, scarred and radicalized, supporting a delusional white man who wears a crown of thorns and claims he is the fallen Messiah. The film has a 12a rating, but the sequence in the church is one of the most nightmarish things I’ve seen in a long time.
Whilst watching I believed the title to be referring to the white man’s hold over the indigenous cultures, and for a while the film leads you to think this. Opening imagery of a huge snake devouring its newborns, and the entrance of explorer Evan being foreshadowed by a snake meandering through the water, paint the serpent as the thing to be afraid of. However, as Manduca asks Karamakate when next to a raging river – ‘is this where the anaconda descended from the milky way?’. Amazonian mythology’s creation story tells of extra-terrestrial beings descending from space on a giant anaconda, giving treats (tobacco, coca, the hallucinogenic Yagé) and eventually forming the Amazon river. When you desire enlightenment the serpent descends again, and takes you to faraway lands, allowing you to see the world in new light. The titular ‘Serpent’ is the earth, space, and time, and the ‘Embrace’ is the importance of deeper spiritual understanding. Let this film take you on its journey, and reap its many rewards.