REVIEW: El abrazo de la serpiente [Embrace of the Serpent] [2015]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 125 minutes | Release Date: May 25th, 2015 (Colombia)
Studio: Oscilloscope Pictures
Director(s): Ciro Guerra
Writer(s): Ciro Guerra & Jacques Toulemonde Vidal / Theodor Koch-Grunberg & Richard Evans Schultes (diary)

“Knowledge belongs to all men”

It’s 1909 and the colonists have arrived in Colombia searching for rubber. They kill, enslave, and rape the land of its resources, systematically destroying a way of life at the snap of their fingers to project their own culture, religion, and greed instead. One Amazonian shaman refuses to fall victim to the physical and spiritual slaughter. Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) chooses solitude to preserve all he knows in the midst of invasion. But what of the anaconda that fell from the Milky Way speaking to him in caapi-adled dreams about protecting an outsider? What about his duty as a Cohiuano to pass on all he knows to the next generation? Could a white man, sick and in need of a miracle, prove the unlikely companion to answer both questions?

It’s 1940 and Colombia has seen its native history completely usurped so that even Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar), the final survivor of his people, no longer remembers any of what made the Cohiuano special. His isolation has made use of his tribe’s songs meaningless and the acts of creating from the earth that were second nature can no longer be conjured. Not even the markings made on the stone side of a mountain are decipherable not that this once proud protector has transformed into an empty shell devoid of emotion, thought, or memory: a chullachaqui. But he still has one last adventure before he can perish; one last white man to assist that carries the potential of bringing everything flooding back with a simple flower known as the yakruna.

Welcome to Ciro Guerra‘s gorgeous elegy to a lost civilization, El abrazo de la serpiente [Embrace of the Serpent]. Crafted from the diaries of two real explorers—German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) and American ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis)—the film immortalizes Columbia’s indigenous culture by capturing its vitality through its demise. Rather than do so with those white men as narrators on a journey beginning abroad that’s colored by naïve thoughts of good will, however, Guerra and cowriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal keep everything to Karamakate’s perspective. There’s no better guide than a stern idealist removed from the danger and allure of his country’s Western rebirth. He’s a man so stubborn and pious towards nature that he only notices his role in its destruction through hindsight.

We instead witness it in real time as the film transitions to and fro between a 1909 and 1940 Karamakate wherein Theo and Evan become one and the same inside his consciousness. We imagine this lone Cohiuano hasn’t interacted with another human soul after helping Theo and Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) before Evan. How could he after the way that first sojourn ends in fire and betrayal? It’s a juxtaposition of youthful vigor against senior reflection, strength in the thought that the way of his God couldn’t change opposite the regret of failing to help it evolve. We watch as he does what he believes in his heart is his only means of securing the future and soon discover how it all might have made things worse.

This is the chaos of two worlds colliding when one is too powerful to overcome. It’s spotting the difference between charlatans and scientists so automatic assumptions leaning towards exploitation don’t shroud legitimate concern and potential salvation from view. Bits and pieces of the Amazonian way of life have been salvaged because of Koch-Grunberg’s work, but more might have escaped if events were changed. He saw first-hand what happened and knew the impact colonization would take on their culture. He knew the ramifications of introducing a compass into a society built upon a different, critical tradition. And while everyone does deserve the chance to learn and adapt, how that process proceeds and from whom plays a large role in whether subsequent steps forward are steeped in compromise or corruption.

Beyond the natives yearning to preserve their way of life and the predators making this new land their own lays nature. The earth and her possessions are the true stakes of this dismantling whether it’s the trees drained for rubber production or the medicinal herbs stolen for hallucinogenic imbibing. It’s through Karamakate that we become educated to sacred practices and clean bodies, rejecting meat and fish until the moon or stars deem it approved. Credit Theo on his deathbed for adhering to these “prohibitions” and credit fate for intervening when missteps are made. There’s an ominous force holding us in suspense lingering over every frame as though lightning may strike at any moment. Man merely leases this land and Karamakate seeks to protect that contract.

You will be in awe of the natural surroundings, laugh at the dry sense of superiority Torres’ young Karamakate instills, and swell with emotion alongside Bolivar’s aged Karamakate’s resigned sadness to what’s become of his surroundings. Both actors are superb in their fearless dealings with their adversaries and genuine desire to trust those they’re meant to assist despite trepidation at their core. Soon both Bijvoet’s Theo and Davis’ Evan do merge into a single embodiment as the camera follows one down the river before panning over to the other as their journeys overlap to reveal the harsh passage of time. The first proves a test for Karamakate, the second his redemption. But it’s ultimately his decision whether or not their lives trump his home’s security.

What isn’t up to Karamakate is whether that home can be saved. Guerra’s tale is culled from a period of great upheaval—the type of cosmic force you cannot stop no matter purity of intentions. Should this Cohiuano harbor guilt? Could he have saved innocents from falling prey to false idols and jealous greed by conducting himself in a different manner? Maybe. What’s most interesting is that his confidence in youth refusing to interfere except by pushing his state of being was unwavering. He does not intervene and he doesn’t with determination. It’s three decades later when he acknowledges his interpretation of the signs may have been skewed. So now he becomes proactive, filled with a fresh drive to persevere. Sometimes the world simply moves too fast.

courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures

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