The Embrace of the Serpent: a film condemning European colonialism and its effects also carrying a message of reconciliation and hope

Ciro Guerra, “The Embrace of the Serpent / El Abrazo de la Serpiente” (2015)

Filmed on location in the Amazon rainforest region, this remarkable film features two parallel stories that involve the shaman Karamakate set 30 years apart. In the earlier story, German explorer / ethnographer Theo Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), accompanied by man-servant Manduca (Yauenku Migue), is ailing from a severe illness and needs treatment and a cure; he is brought to the young Karamakate (Niblio Torres) who initially declines to help as he distrusts Europeans for having destroyed his people and their culture. After Theo tells the shaman that he has seen some of his people and can take him to them, K agrees to go with him and Manduca and lead them to the yakruna plant that will apparently cure Theo. Theo promises to abide by various prohibitions that the shaman places on him. The threesome endure a testy relationship while sailing on the Amazon due to K’s distrust of Manduca for abandoning his culture for that of European ways and of Theo for being white. Manduca loyally defends Theo who bought his freedom from a rubber plantation owner. On their journey, the trio encounter a mission run by a lone priest for abandoned orphans; the priest has forbidden the children from using their own languages and runs a severe religious Christian regime that includes physical punishment.

Years later, American botanist Richard Evans (Brionne Davis), using an English translation of Theo’s published notes, posted to Germany by Manduca after the German died in the rainforest, comes to the Amazon to find Karamakate. Evans’ real purpose is to find disease-free rubber trees for the US, since the usual Southeast Asian sources of rubber have been overtaken by Japan during the Second World War; but he conceals this from Karamakate, telling the shaman he is interested in finding the plant that healed Theo for its medicinal qualities.

Through both stories the film is a powerful exploration of the extent to which European culture has devastated native Amazon cultures and peoples with the consequent loss of native knowledge and human connections with nature. In both stories, Theo and Richard must learn to divest themselves of material possessions and Western assumptions and patterns of thinking, and to listen to and follow their inner voices, and rediscover their inner lives and worlds through dreaming; only by doing so can they find what they have been truly seeking, which is the nature of reality and finding their true selves and place in the cosmos. Karamakate for his part must also learn what his true purpose is as the lone survivor of his people and the sole repository of all their knowledge and history. Just as the white men must learn that the yakruna plant cannot be abused for profit or grown in ways that abuse its sacred properties, so Karamakate is led on his own spiritual path and release from the emptiness he has felt for allowing his anger at European and mestizo abuse of the yakruna plant to overcome him and cause Theo’s death 30 years earlier. He comes to realise his knowledge isn’t just for his own people but is for the wider world beyond that needs it.

The monochrome look of the film gives it a surreal quality and the exquisite editing enables the narrative to shift back and forwards in time; this allows the film also to track the fortunes of the mission orphans over time. The lone priest who abused the orphans physically is replaced by a crazed self-appointed messiah. In this the film makes a statement about the effect that cultural genocide has had on Amazon peoples and contrasts the religious extremism encouraged by self-styled Christian leaders with the mystical journeys of Theo, Richard and Karamakate. The time shifts also enable viewers to experience time and Karamakate’s own experiences in particular as circular, highlighting the shaman’s own redemption and his frailties as a human.

The climax of the film is filmed in colour and seems a bit flat and disappointing but this is a minor quibble compared with the rest of the film. It is a strong and devastating critique of European colonialism and the capitalist quest to commodify and exploit the natural world for profit, and also shows a way in which all humans can find reconnection with the world of nature and the spirit world. Ultimately this is a film of redemption, reconciliation and hope.