Embrace of the Serpent

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Laura Clifford 
Embrace of the Serpent

Robin Clifford 

In 1909, Theodor von Mauritius (Jan Bijvoet, "The Broken Circle Breakdown," "Borgman") fell ill while on a botanical expedition deep in Amazonia.  His native hired man, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), rows to the shore where shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) stands alone.  Told that they are going to find the Cohiuano, Karamakate replies that they no longer exist and that he is not interested in helping the white man.  Forty years later, Karamakate's (Antonio Bolivar) eventual friendship with Theo makes him more accepting when he is approached by Evan (Brionne Davis), who is seeking the same yakruna plant, Theo's books guiding him in "Embrace of the Serpent."

Cowriter (with Jacques Toulemonde Vidal)/director Ciro Guerra has accomplished something quite remarkable with the first film to shoot on location in the Columbian Amazon in over thirty years.  Unlike Werner Herzog's Peruvian set "Fitzcarraldo," Guerra's film is told from the mystical perspective of Karamakate, a man who has witnessed the decimation of his tribe by Western rubber barons.  Through his eyes we experience the world in a spiritual way in which man and nature are harmonious and time is fluid. Enhanced by stunning black and white 35mm cinematography by David Gallego, "Embrace of the Serpent" is a dreamlike, humanistic history of an indigenous people more civilized in their profound relationship with their world than those from the industrialized lands who exploited them.  Colombia's Foreign Language Film nominee is a filmmaking achievement of the highest order.

Based on the journals of the real life explorers Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes, Guerra shifts his story back and forth between their two time periods.  We see the young Karamakate aid Theo with blasts of botanical powder that keep the man alive as they journey deeper into the jungle.  Cultural clashes prove learning experiences, culminating at a stop Chorrera, a Capuchin mission where a plaque commemorates the 'bravery' of rubber pioneers who overcame 'cannibal savages' where Theo discovers the cruelty continues.  Later, at the same place, Evan will experience a bizarre evolution of religious fervor, madness akin to Russell's "The Devils."  Moments of great beauty (Torres's naturally acquired physique being one) are juxtaposed with horrors, a snake giving birth at once repulsive and erotic.

"Embrace of the Serpent" is a masterful ode to the loss of an enlightened culture more truly spiritual than the men of organized religions who destroyed it.

Grade:  A

Robin gives "Embrace of the Serpent" an A-.
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