“Embrace of the Serpent” is a rare and remarkable film inspired by the travels of two scientific explorers, one in 1909, the other in 1940, who travel with the same indigenous shaman in the nether regions of the Columbian Amazon. Nominated for the 88th Academy Award ® for Best Foreign Language Film – Colombia, and filmed entirely in black and white, we join these two scientists on their separate mysterious journeys down remote rivers in search of the sacred psychedelic Yakruna plant.
As the film begins, the ailing Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872-1924) (well-acted by Jan Bijvoet), the German ethnologist who spent years in the Amazon studying and documenting various tribes, most now extinct, seeks out young Karamakate (fabulous Nilbio Torres), an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people. Theo, accompanied by his amanuensis, Manduca (fine work by Miguel Dionisio Ramos), asks Karamakate to help him find the elusive, sacred and lifesaving Yakruna plant.
Karamakate, a noble follower of his people’s strict tenets of respect for the jungle, must protect the Amazon and its secrets from White invaders. He insists that Theo and Manduca follow his precepts, which preclude fishing until the rains come and being with women until well after the new moon. The trio sets forth on a canoe voyage in the remote rivers where they encounter pristine nature and undisturbed tribes, as well as the creeping eradication of the land and its people by Columbian rubber barons. The Catholic religion also sabotages the tribes by subjugating young boys at a missionary orphanage that the threesome visit.
Scenes of Theo’s journey switch back and forth with the 1940 exploration by the American biologist and the father of modern ethnobotany, Richard Evans Schultes (1915–2001) (first-rate Brionne Davis). Richard finds a somber, older Karamakate (excellent Antonio Bolívar Salvador) still living alone in the same open hut as he had been years earlier. Once again, Karamakate is asked by a White scientist to find the Yakruna plant. He claims to have forgotten where to locate it, but reluctantly agrees to try. It is unclear at first whether years of isolation and loneliness have numbed his mental capacity, but Karamakate begins the journey guiding Richard through precisely the same route as he did when shepherding Theo and Manduca.
Richard’s journey, so many years later, exposes the heartbreaking decimation of the Amazon. The rubber barons and religious leaders have become even more ruthless than they were during Theo’s exploration. The scene in which Karamakate and Richard visit the missionary is so barbaric and grotesque that I had to look away.
I saw “Embrace of the Serpent” twice — something I rarely do — and was mesmerized and haunted by it both times. It was beautifully filmed during the course of seven weeks in the jungles of the Vaupés River, between the Colombian and Brazilian border, near the area studied by Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes. Winner of the Art Cinema Award in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, the artistic camera work and the rainforest sounds bring the Amazon to life.
But of equal significance to the reconstruction of the multi-layered natural setting, is the development of the human relationships between the two scientists and the charismatic Karamakate, a man of knowledge, principle and virtue, who stoically accepts his lonely fate as the last of his tribe.
© Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights reserved