Ciro Guerra’s ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ brings together two Amazonian encounters
“You devote your life to plants?” an ancient shaman asks his young American visitor. “That’s the most reasonable thing I’ve ever heard a white say.” The shaman is Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador), the last of his tribe, living in isolation deep in the Amazonian rainforest. The visitor is a fresh-faced ethnobotanist, Evan (Brionne Davis), who has arrived by canoe in search of an elusive hallucinogenic plant called yakruna – a kind of fictionalised ayahuasca with reputed healing powers. Karamakate is the centre of Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (in national release), a vivid film that interweaves two encounters many decades apart.
In the first, the younger Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), holding on to his old ways yet effectively having no one to share them with, is tracked down by Theo (Jan Bijvoet), a German anthropologist looking every bit the eccentric European explorer. Theo wants to record a way of life that is dying out, to gather the remaining ancestral knowledge of Karamakate’s tribe and (like his American counterpart decades later) to find the fabled, sacred plant.
As the film begins, the younger Karamakate – new to his utter isolation – is all bristling hostility when Theo arrives. Accompanying Theo is Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), a guide who operates as a kind of bridge between the outside world encroaching from upriver and Karamakate’s culture retreating into the dense jungle. When the men first meet, Theo is gravely ill with an unspecified tropical ailment. What was intended to be a hands-across-the-divide anthropological moment is now, apparently, a medical emergency. “I’m not like you!” says Karamakate to Manduca. “I don’t help the whites.” But something in Theo’s desperate vulnerability intrigues Karamakate. “Only yakruna can save you,” he tells Theo. The film charts the journey of these two unlikely companions in their search for the plant.
In the second encounter, the basic elements of this journey are repeated when the older Karamakate – less angry and, in his proximity to death, bearing a weary acceptance about the utter strangeness of life – resurrects the master–apprentice relationship with Evan. (Guerra has spoken of how he became fascinated with a recurring pattern in the recorded contacts between the West and the so-called primitive: when one explorer “would encounter the same indigenous tribe, he would find that the previous explorer had been turned into myth. To the natives, it was always the same man, the same spirit, visiting them over and over again.”) For Karamakate, it’s all very well to see these otherworldly strangers, with their absurd motivations, as embodiments of the one spirit. But his own spirit is giving him trouble these days. “The line is broken, my memory is gone,” he tells Evan. “Rocks, trees, animals, they all went silent.” When Evan first finds him, the old man is drawing shamanistic patterns on a rock face. But they may as well be doodles, for Karamakate no longer knows what they mean. “What kind of man can forget the gifts the gods gave us?” he moans, in his sleep, overheard by Evan.
Where Theo is a traditional accumulator of anthropological detail, Evan is portrayed as a seeker of the transcendent experience, or at least the plant that delivers it. Yet the find-the-yakruna focus, despite being narratively essential, carries a possible unintended side effect. Embrace of the Serpent treads dangerously close to delivering an easy glibness, a pop-cultural pseudo-mysticism that is both responding to and riding on the current wave of ayahuasca tourism. (The potent South American drug, formerly seen as the focus of a marginal, alternative-community spiritual ritual, has gained popularity in the West, though these days more in the fashion of Burning-Man-meets-Coachella-meets-Lindsay-Lohan than of Carlos Castaneda.) How much you see the film as a flimsy, and possibly overly sincere, hymn to a lost hippy idealism may depend on your attitude to said wave.
Yet the film does genuinely – and, it would seem, non-ironically – attempt to grapple with bold ontological questions; at certain moments, Embrace of the Serpent feels proto-Tarkovskian in the batty overtness of its poetic ambitions. For Guerra, form met function in the filmmaking process, in the sense that there was a dovetailing of the brutal low-budget, all-hands-on-deck shoot and the very themes his film investigates. “You learn to swim in this gigantic flow,” he has said of the shoot, “and every day it brings new things, new visions. We saw how everything has knowledge, from the rock to the tree, the insect or the wind, and we learned to find happiness in that. It’s a change in perspective. It’s difficult for us, having been born and raised in the capitalist system, to change our lives.”
The German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg, on whom Theo is loosely based, wrote in his diary of field trips along the Amazon in 1907: “All I know is that, like all those who have shed the thick veil that blinded them, when I came back to my senses, I had become another man.” The film implies that a kind of animism lives on the other side of that veil. It implies, too, that a certain drug experience might trigger a dissolving of that veil. Nonetheless there’s something broader, and sadder, at play in Guerra’s hands than the search for a particular plant and its effects. A city-raised Colombian, Guerra grew up vaguely aware that “half of [his nation] was an unknown territory, a green sea, of which I knew nothing”. As the region is usually reduced to the easy tropes of “coke, drugs, Indians, rivers, war”, Guerra asked himself the question, “Is there really nothing more out there?” For the 35-year-old director, “the explorers have told their story, [but] the natives haven’t … The Amazon is lost now. In the cinema, it can live again.”
In Werner Herzog’s masterpiece Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), another of that small category of movies set in the Amazon, the thematic focus is the megalomania of Western colonial delusion and its dehumanisation of the “other” in its search for gold and lucre. In Embrace of the Serpent, the perspective is successfully flipped: our men of science are the outsiders, and to Karamakate their Western reality is insubstantial compared to his animist’s dream world. (The elusive yakruna plant, to which our twin narratives relentlessly move, is itself, in Karamakate’s understanding, primarily and precisely a substance that will teach us how to dream.)
But for the older Karamakate travelling deep into the jungle with Evan in tow, problems regarding substantiality and insubstantiality are of a different order. Decades before, Karamakate had explained to Theo that we all have a chullachaqui (a kind of inverted spirit double of ourselves): “He’s just like you but he’s empty, hollow.” Now, the older man – all these decades later, in his uneasy melancholy, with memories of that youthful journey flooding back – sees himself primarily as chullachaqui. The second journey will be, in part, about reclaiming his substance.
Guerra has chosen to chart this journey with an elemental simplicity. Cinematographer David Gallego shot the film for the most part in dazzlingly crisp black and white. Given the Amazon rainforest’s lush colour palette, this would seem at first to be a counterintuitive stroke. It is, in fact, a carefully calibrated strategy, and it works on several levels. The film has the gorgeous look of 19th-century travellers’ daguerreotypes – all those silvers and mercuries – brought to life. Without the incessant dazzle of colour, our attention is drawn to the dense interiority of the jungle, where everything is a gradation of shadow rather than sectors on the colour wheel. This mottled palette seems to echo the film’s thematic locus of enquiry: the marly borderline between conscious and unconscious realms.
“Why do you whites love your things so much?” asks the younger Karamakate, marvelling at Theo’s canoe so loaded down with trunks and cases and books and scientific instruments. Theo replies that his “things” are links to his loved ones in Germany, and they contain all his knowledge. Karamakate considers this explanation with what looks like genuine curiosity. “You’re insane,” he pronounces, at last.
Decades later, Evan asks Karamakate, “Are you going to show me the way?” He answers, “I don’t know it. You’re going to have to find it yourself. Throw your luggage.” Evan was specifically enquiring after, you guessed it, the whereabouts of the yakruna plant. But when metaphor is asked to do such obvious lifting, moments like this run the risk of feeling trite. Still, if Guerra’s storytelling is a little over-baked at times, it ultimately somehow works in the context. These Westerners do travel with an awful lot of layers of accoutrements, compared to our minimalist shaman with his loincloth, blowpipe and animal-tooth necklace.
Embrace of the Serpent also touches on the frictions between this stripped-bare existence and the excesses of the West. It does this by glancing – through the film’s Apocalypse Now–like river-journey structure – at both that which the West wants to take from the jungle (there’s a subplot about the destructive effect of rubber plantations) and that which it tries to instil (Christian colonialism, in the form of an isolated orphanage that between Theo’s and Evan’s times has become as weird and Messianic as Colonel Kurtz’s compound).
All of which is to say there’s a lot going on beneath the film’s minimalist surface, and at various moments disparate elements come together fluidly and coherently, forming an odd serenity. And yet at times the film seems to hark back, in spirit if not style, to Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s strangely beautiful, garish, colour-saturated early ’70s hallucinations El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the shaman-Westerns of the time. Perhaps the affinity lies in the way both filmmakers are so overtly attached to the poetry, rather than to the prose, of storytelling.