Embrace of the Serpent, Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra’s masterful new film, has already garnered international acclaim. He chooses to shoot the film in all black and white, which I must say accentuates every bit of this tale set in the Amazonian wilderness about man and its journey in search of the elusive. The film follows two stories separated by time but connected by the protagonist Karamakate, who is believed to be the last of his tribe/people.
In his earlier, younger avatar, he reluctantly agrees to help a European scientist Theo Grunberg, who is in search of a rare plant called yakurna. The plant has properties to bring profound visions and foresight to whomever consumes it. Karamakate (played by Nilbio Torres) hates White colonizers for the violence and destruction they brought with them. While he outright refuses to help him at first, it’s after some persuasion from a fellow Amazonian that Karamakate agrees to help Grunberg, who has taken seriously ill and is close to death.
The film follows this first narrative of Karamakate’s reluctant journey helping Grunberg. The stunning cinematography and the brooding depiction by Torres are complimented by the contrast the film presents: the generous and unflinching existence that the Amazon is, and the constant attack of man’s greed in the form of a White scientist, who seems to follow the footsteps of his colonizer ancestors (albeit in a less violent form).
The second narrative follows an older Karamakate, mellowed and quieter, realizing the truths of his human existence and mortality, and still reluctant to help a similar search for the ever-elusive yakurna plant, this time being chased by an American named Richard Shultes.
Both journeys navigate the waters of the Amazon (or so I think) and confront the violence of rubber plantations, a Christian mission school where children are being taught the way of God, and larger issues of White-centric notions of savagery. The film is obviously a critique of the violence and devastation that colonization brought to the land, but also the inherent nature of the natives to continue to persevere with their natural way of life. The visceral visuals of the film keep you glued to the world that is before you and more than the narrative or the characters, it’s the natural complexity and eternal beauty of the Amazon that makes the film such a unique film experience.