‘There are many stories in Colombia that have not been told yet,’ says director Ciro Guerra, ‘especially from its indigenous history.’ His new film, Embrace of the Serpent may change that.
His protagonist, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), is a formidable shaman. Living on the bank of Amazon river, he is a sage of plants and the last of a tribe wiped out by rubber barons. As the film opens we see him as the approaching German character, Theodor, sees him: standing on a riverbank, barely clothed, shaking his spear. But don’t be fooled, Karamakate is not the exotic, ‘noble savage’ of lesser films, who too often wind up as supporting characters to Western protagonists. No, Karamakate is the lead, he has nuance, he has flaws, he is bitter and suspicious, and that might be why he has survived where others did not.
Karamakate’s story is the search for one plant, Yakruna, told in two journeys. The first takes place in 1909 with Theodor (Jan Bijvoet), an ill German ethnologist and his aide, Manduca (Yauenku Migue). The second takes place many decades later with Evans (Brionne Davis) , an American suffering from ‘dreamless sleep’, who seeks out an older Karamakate (played now by Antonio Bolivar) for help. Both Westerners hope that Yakruna will cure them. Though they take place many decades apart, Guerra tells both stories at the same time.
What follows is a seemingly familiar conflict between book-smart Westerner and forest-wise native. In both journeys, Theo and Evans argue constantly with Karamakate about the way they see and do things, at the crossroads between western and traditional knowledge. However, the point isn’t to open up the Westerners to a somehow enlightened, wholesome or ‘native’ way of thinking (think Dances with Wolves). Rather, Guerro focuses on the conflicts themselves. He lets them hang in the air, lets them become palpable. In one pivotal scene, Theo realises that a tribal leader has taken his compass and transforms from gracious to angry over an awkward pause. ‘If they keep the compass,’ he blusters to Karamakate, ‘they will lose their ability to navigate by the stars and the wind.’
‘Who are you to withhold knowledge?’ he asks back. It is a moral dilemma.
‘There is no right way to handle that problem,’ Guerra tells Geographical. ‘The point of that scene is for an irreconcilable moment at the meeting of two cultures. The audience must decide for themselves what they think of it.’
Meanwhile, the parallel storytelling – with an older and younger Karamakate – allows the film an extra dimension to see the long-term, historical scars of colonialism. It shows the heinous impact of the rubber trade, and the intergenerational trauma of Catholic evangelism. In one scene, young Karamakate encounters a lone monk at a Catholic mission, violently indoctrinating a group of indigenous orphans. The monk is killed in an argument, leaving the children to fend for themselves. When older Karamakate returns to the mission many years later, the horror of a half-baked religion is revealed.
Embrace of the Serpent gets under the skin of these historical, cultural and personal conflicts. ‘Karamakate himself is a paradox,’ says Guerra. ‘His role as a shaman is unfulfilled as there is no one for him to pass knowledge to, all his people are gone. That contradiction breaks him down and exposes him as a person.’ Through the eyes of such a character, the film is an unforgiving journey through the recent history of the Colombian Amazon.