Embrace of the Serpent” Observes Culture Clash
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Long before Amazon connoted an online book service, it was the name of the world’s largest rainforest. The Amazon jungle covers 2,100,000 square miles in South America, about 40% of the entire continent.
The Amazon River slithers through the jungle like a serpent, some 4,345 miles in length. There are about 100 uncontacted tribes living in the Amazon. They are dwindling.
In 1909 a German scientist named Theodor Koch-Grünberg visited the Amazon in search of a sacred healing plant. There he met a young shaman known as Karamakate. He recorded this in his travel journal.
Three decades later an American biologist named Richard Evans Schultes penetrated the rainforest looking for this yakruna plant. He too recorded his meeting with Karamakate.
Columbian filmmaker Che Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” tells these parallel stories. Together they reveal the decimation of indigenous cultures by rubber barons and outside marauders. Shot mostly in black-and-white, the film is lyrical in a hallucinatory way, as if Guerra has slipped a little yakruna into the audience’s sodas.
“Embrace of the Serpent” -- currently playing at Tropic Cinema -- was one of this year’s nominees as Best Foreign Language Film. English subtitles supplement the Spanish intermixed with a number of Amazonian tribal languages.
This retelling is loosely based on the diaries.
In the first journey Theo (Jan Bijvoet) travels up the river by canoe, accompanied by a younger Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) and an interpreter (Yauenkü Miguee). Karamakate is hesitant to help Theo find the cure-all plant, but agrees on the condition that Theo help him locate any surviving members of his tribe, the Cohiuanos.
In the second expedition, an enfeebled Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador) leads Evan (Brionne Davis) into the jungle in search of the yakruna. By now, the shaman is aware he is the last of his tribe. Angry and full of grief, he has lost his ability to commune with rocks and trees.
While new agers may applaud Karamakate’s admonition that possession are “just things” (he advises the explorers to throw their luggage overboard), and appreciate his disdain for money, that’s not the true message of “Embrace of the Serpent.” The film’s anger is focused on the white intruders who are destroying the tribal cultures and the indigenous people themselves.
In 2011, Columbia signed legal decree #4633, guaranteeing uncontacted peoples the rights to their voluntary isolation, and reparations for any violence against them by outsiders. Peru has five reserves meant to protect the lands and rights of isolated peoples. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) seeks to protect the territory of uncontacted people by posting notices warning invaders away.
But rainforest is still being cleared for cattle ranches and oil drilling and lumbering operations, forcing tribes to relocate. And in 2013 more than 20 uncontacted Taromenane Indians were killed by contacted/settled Indians. Also it’s not unusual for half of a tribe’s population to be wiped out by measles, influenza, and the common cold within a year of first contact.
Thus “Embrace of the Serpent” is not so much about the quest for a magical hallucinogenic plant, or about a shaman’s simple-life wisdom, as it is about the inevitable clash of cultures, with one slowly but surely eradicating the other.