Embrace Of The Serpent

By 25 January, 2016

Ciro Guerra’s Oscar nominated third feature picks up where his second, 2009’s The Wind Journeys (Los Viajes del Viento), left off. His subject material is once again the rich anthropological heritage of his native Colombia, but where the country’s indigenous inhabitants played a supporting role in The Wind Journeys, they take centre stage in Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpiente). Around the central figure of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman, and the last surviving member of his tribe, Guerra entwines two parallel narratives, loosely based on the diaries of two foreign scientists, both drawn to seek shamanic guidance to the elusive, psychoactive yakruna plant.

Stylistically, the film marks a stark departure from the vibrant, sun-saturated colour palette of his previous film; here, David Gallego’s austere black-and-white cinematography demands attention from the first frames of the prologue, which plays with depth of field and perspective to disorient and ensnare us in a rainforest that is, in the director’s words, “drained of exuberance and exoticism”. Carlos García’s sound design is similarly immersive, making full use of surround sound to envelop the cinema in the buzz and hum of the jungle. This thick layer of ambience becomes a constant subconscious presence, at times loudly oppressive, at others softly reassuring. It is punctuated by devastating moments of silence, and Nascuy Linares’ gritty, minimalist score, which is unleashed to transcendent effect over sequences that echo Popul Vuh’s work on Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Though set some 400 years later, Embrace of the Serpent depicts a world in which the bloody violations of Aguirre’s conquistadores are continually renewed. For Antonio Bolívar, the Ocaína tribesman that plays the old Karamakate, “that stain of violence has remained since the arrival of Christopher Columbus”. Where Francis Ford Coppolla’s Apocalypse Now transplanted Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into the Vietnam war, Guerra’s film draws parallels between the ravaged Belgian Congo and the remote areas of jungle on the Colombian-Peruvian border. It’s an unflinching portrayal of colonialism in which the insatiable 19th century ivory trade finds a 20th century analogue in the industrialised world’s unquenchable thirst for rubber: the camera falls often upon the white sap oozing from trees, brought into hyperreal focus by the greyscale photography. Here too, are Kurtz-like self-anointed ideologues, rogue Catholic missionaries free to express their spiritual depravities upon the orphans of the native population.

Guerra’s is not the first dramatisation of colonial exploitation on this stretch of rainforest during the rubber boom; Herzog’s other Amazonian odyssey, Fitzcarraldo, was set just over the border in Peru, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 novel, The Dream of the Celt, provides a literary antecedent, recounting Anglo-Irish diplomat Roger Casement’s investigation into rubber slavery and human rights abuses by the Peruvian Amazon Company. But what is near-unprecedented about Embrace of the Serpent is the location of its perspective: where Vargas Llosa, Herzog and Conrad based their tales primarily upon the psychological and moral effects of the jungle experience on European protagonists, Guerra’s film tells Karamakate’s story.

The film’s dual timelines – set in 1909 and 1940 respectively – depict the shaman in both the summer and autumn of his life. As a young man in his prime, guiding German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), he is played with indomitable vigour and a wicked sense of humour by Nilbio Torres. 30 years later, with North American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) in tow, Antonio Bolívar portrays a life force blunted by decades of solitary existence. In a lifetime spent alone he foresees an eternity of lost knowledge, his own mortality representing the mute passing of a culture. For Bolívar, the role is almost autobiographical: he is one of the last 50 surviving members of his tribe.

As a shaman, Karamakate’s purpose in life is to communicate, conveying knowledge between the spirit world of the rainforest and the human world around him. Alone, his existence is meaningless. Whilst the foreign explorers present rare opportunities to communicate and share knowledge with the industrialised world, their ethnobiological, knowledge-gathering motivations are clouded by materialistic hangups and their own existential weaknesses, which play out in counterpoint, as the plot skips back and forth in time.

Guerra’s narrative chronology reflects the fact that “Amazonians don’t see time in the same way as we do. Past and future are in a constant dialogue”. A critical discourse is established, exposing the degenerative impact of 30 years of colonial exploitation on the rainforest; we witness the transformation of a brutal Catholic mission into a perverse, quasi-religious cult; the thirst for rubber is slaked, only to be superseded by a greater thirst for oil.

While similar scenes of degeneracy in Aguirre and Apocalypse Now interpret the jungle as a spiritual blank canvas, on which nihilistic interlopers paint their own horrific fantasies, Embrace of the Serpent incorporates the Animistic spirituality of the rainforest into the narrative itself. The opening credits roll over an hypnotic montage of a huge snake – the titular serpent – giving birth, and key points in the plot are marked by a series of heavily symbolic fables featuring exquisitely shot Amazonian predators. These sequences reflect the shaman’s supernatural insight, using cinema to open up non-verbal channels of communication, bridging cultural and linguistic barriers.

The film also offers hope for the possibility of redemption and reconciliation between the spirit world of the rainforest and the material world of industrialised society. Both upriver expeditions are motivated by the search for healing, knowledge and understanding in the form of the yakruna plant, which for Karamakate is the holiest and most powerful of the plant spirits. The real Richard Evans Schultes was the first modern scientist to discover yakruna (Chacruna; Psychotria viridis): a key component of the ayahuasca ceremony, it contains DMT, which has since become mythologised as “The Spirit Molecule” in western psychedelic counterculture. Considered the father of modern ethnobotany, Schultes’ entheogenic discoveries would lead him to co-author The Plants of the Gods with chemist Albert Hoffmann – the inventor of LSD – and influence a generation of revolutionary thinkers, including Huxley, Ginsberg, Burroughs and McKenna. Perhaps more importantly, Schultes was amongst the first people to alert the wider world to the deforestation of the Amazon, and the extinction of its native people, for whom he had huge respect: “The ethnobotanical researcher… must realize that far from being a superior individual, he – the civilized man – is in many respects far inferior”.

In a country where one third of indigenous groups remain under threat of extinction, the contemporary significance of Karamakate’s story cannot be underestimated. Embrace of the Serpent is similarly valuable as an ethnographic document, shot over seven weeks in the rainforest, in nine different languages: “I feel that the film is honest, Ciro more or less shows what our tribal elders have told us” (Nilbio Torres). Against this weighty thematic subtext, Guerra’s deftly constructed narrative is both audiovisually mesmerising and dramatically captivating, an achievement which firmly establishes him amongst the foremost voices in Latin American cinema.

Embrace of the Serpent is in US cinemas from February 17th 2016. It has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards.

Follow Sounds and Colours: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Mixcloud / Soundcloud / Bandcamp

Subscribe to the Sounds and Colours Newsletter for regular updates, news and competitions bringing the best of Latin American culture direct to your Inbox.