Embrace of the Serpent

Emma Street learns the way of the jungle in Ciro Guerra’s mesmerising new film.

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White people are awful, aren’t they? Well, OK, #notallwhitepeople. But the white rubber barons who invaded South America in the early twentieth century and enslaved the indigenous population? They were pretty bad news.

Embrace the Serpent’s hero, Karamakate, has plenty of reason to mistrust white folks. He is the last surviving member of a tribe wiped out by the appallingly cruel treatment of enslaved South Americans forced to work on the rubber plantations. At the beginning of the film, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) encounters a German ethnologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) who is close to death. He has no interest in helping him: “You are nothing but a white!” he tells him. However, his natural role as a healer overcomes his very reasonable prejudice and Karamakate chooses to save Theo’s life using a traditional blowing-herbs-up-the-nose method that he calls the “sun’s semen”. Once Theo is feeling a bit less at death’s door, the pair of them embark on a journey to find the yakruna flower, a legendary healing plant.

Forty years later another white man turns up in the same place also looking for Karamakate’s help in locating this mystical flower. Evans (Brionne Davis) tells the now much older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) that he has spent his life dedicated to understanding plants. “That’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard from a white man” says Karamakate.

Evans and Karamakate embark on the same journey that Theo and Karamakate undertook many years earlier. The film neatly cuts between the two timelines throughout, showing us both Theo and Evans’ journeys. Except it isn’t really Theo and Evans’ journeys. It is entirely the story of Karamakate, his lost people and the surrounding indigenous tribes whose lives have been ripped apart by intruders whose single-minded focus on stripping the beautiful landscape of its natural resources has left it all too visibly scarred.

The two journeys cover the same route along the Amazon. The same boats are used, the same landmarks are passed, even Theo and Evans don’t seem all that different from one another. It is Karamakate who has changed in the intervening years. The strong focused warrior has given way to a confused old man who struggles to remember the way of his people. He no longer remembers how to make the hallucinogenic potions he used to specialise in. Nor does he understand the significance of the sacred drawings he has been creating for decades. “Now they are just pictures on rocks” he says sadly. Despite this, he agrees to help Evans find the elusive yakruna flower.

In both versions of the story, Karamamate – initially a reluctant guide – forms a bond with his travelling companion. Evans shows Karamakate a book based on Theo’s diary of his time spent in the Amazon. It transpires that Theo never made it home alive from his explorations, but his writings were sent home to his wife and then published. Karamakate sees a picture of himself which he refers to as his chullachaqui, seemingly believing that the image in the book is a false spirit who merely looks like he does. In fact, the old man believes himself to be merely a chullachaqui now, which is why he no longer remembers the things that used to be important to him.

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The film is entirely shot in black and white and, despite this, the Amazon basin has never looked more beautiful. Karamakate has been clear to both his companions that they must respect nature as he does. Yet their journeys take them to places brutalised by outsiders. The scarred trunks of the rubber trees are a clear indication of the violence that permeates this beautiful landscape even before they encounter the mutilated slave who begs Theo’s companion, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) for death – a request which horrifyingly, he almost grants him.

Theo and Karamakate also encounter a Christian mission along the banks of the Amazon; a brutal place which strips local children of their indigenous identity in order to convert them to the ways of Christianity. Karamakate’s entreaties for the boys to remember the ways of their people results in violent punishment for those who listen to him. It is another example of the ways that the invading Europeans seem determined to crush the spirit of the place and its people. When Evans and Karamakate encounter the mission years later, it has become an even more terrifying and baffling place: a temple dedicated to the worship of an insane messiah; an undercoat of Christianity layered with savage tribal practises. “It is the worst of both worlds” says Karamakate.

Although Karamakate assists both men in their quests, it is their spiritual journey that interests him more. “To become warriors, the cohiuanos must abandon all and go alone to the jungle, guided only by their dreams. In this journey, he has to find out, in solitude and silence” he tells Evans. He persuades both men to let go of their worldly possessions and to undertake a spiritual quest. This involves lots of hallucinogenic drugs, obviously. This is where director Ciro Guerra’s decision to shoot the film in black and white is a bit limiting. It’s all very well having swirling shapes and symbols and undulating scenes of the surrounding countryside when your characters are Carlos Castaneda-ing it in the Amazon rainforest but you really need colour for your trippy sequences to have the full effect.

The spiritual journey ultimately becomes more important than their physical one to both Theo and Evans. But this is the story of the last man of a forgotten tribe. Karamakate is the ultimate hero – strong, wise, mystical, sometimes grumpy and frequently incredibly sarcastic. He may claim to hate all white men but he is willing to take two white men (both based on real-life explorers) on an incredible journey. The white men might not find what they think they are looking for, but Karamakate makes sure they go where they need to go.

Embrace of the Serpent is out today.

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