There’s a bunch of critically acclaimed films that have gone under many of our radars. In response I started gathering a few friends on occasions to watch a movie with me and then spend time afterwards arguing whether it merits the praise. Our last film was Ciro Guerra’s ‘Embrace of the Serpent’.
Embrace of the Serpent
Director: Ciro Guerra
Summary: A drama set in early 20th century Amazonian rainforest
Starring: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolívar, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis
Rating system: I consider 3 aspects of the film: the script, the whole production and finally how strongly the film impacted me and provoked powerful ideas and intense conversation. In each category I give marks out of 10.
‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is a stunning, thought-provoking, psychedelic and refreshing piece of South American cinema. Shot in black and white, it tells two stories and interweaves them. In 1909 a German ethnographer seeks the help of an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate and together they embark on a dangerous quest to find a rare healing plant. 30 years later an American botanist approaches this same shaman, now worn out and losing his memory, to be his guide on the search for the plant.
Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar, the 2 actors that play the young and old Karamakate are outstanding. Torres’ beauty, intensity, clarity and wit grabbed me right from the start. This is his story, not the story of some explorer from the northern hemisphere. In fact even the way the two intertwining tales are edited expresses the Amazonian people’s non-linear perception of time.
There’s a nuance to each of the main characters. No one fits neatly into their designated stereotype boxes. Roles are subverted and this film artfully exposes the brutality and spiritual hypocrisies of colonialism.
Every decision Karamakate, who is the last surviving member of his tribe, makes has the added weight of him being the sole representative of his people. Two of the key questions the film asks are: if you forfeit your very essence can it regained? What is lost when God’s creation is systematically destroyed and the people who can read Eden’s maps have been killed?
I was struck by the moment Karamakate hears European music for the first time via botanist Evan’s phonograph. The piece is Joseph Haydn’s classical Bible-inspired masterpiece The Creation. Karamakate immediately recognizes within the music something Evan probably doesn’t recognize: a deep, authentic spirituality and an aural portal to something transcendent. ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ vividly depicts both culture clashes and connections. If you’re up for an epic, invigorating, disturbing rainforest adventure then I recommend this film.
I’ll finish with a quote by the film’s Colombian director Ciro Guerra: This knowledge (of the indigenous tribal sages) has been passed on through oral tradition, it’s never been written, and from my personal experience, trying to approach it was kind of humiliating, because it is not something you can aspire to understand in a short time like you do in school or college. It is related to life, generations, natural cycles; it really is a gigantic wall of knowledge that you can only admire and maybe try to scratch its surface.
Your chance to respond:
Have you seen Embrace of the Serpent? What did it make you think about? How did it make you feel?
Joel Wilson is a film maker, writer & rap lyricist. He loves unearthing and telling great stories and bringing out the best in my collaborators.