There’s a scene early in Embrace of the Serpent where a German ethnographer, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), has his compass stolen from him by a Amazonian tribe he has befriended, after learning about the object’s navigational powers. It’s an intelligently written scene; Theo, who is clearly upset, laments that they have used “the sun and stars” to navigate for a thousand years, and that “knowledge will be lost” if they learned to use the compass. His guide Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), a survivor of the colonial genocide of his people, chastises Theo, in what seems to be, on his part, a combination of naïve prejudice and world-wise perceptiveness. “Knowledge belongs to all men,” he replies. Theo and Karamakate are both intelligent men, but remarkably different. Their cultures exist on the opposite sides of history, something that creates a natural rift between the two. It’s not a new dynamic, but Embrace of the Serpent is meditative and interesting, and not a moment in the film feels unoriginal.
The European colonials are regarded as having committed some of history’s worst atrocities. Films have consistently reminded us of this, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (dir. Werner Herzog) did so with Spanish conquistadors, portraying their characters as Western hedonists, consumed by their mad desires for mythic riches in the Amazon. Embrace of the Serpent eschews the culturally destructive, doomed voyage of Herzog’s tragic characters and rather adopts a more progressive, enlightened voyage of cultural preservation, in the midst of similar atrocities. We see the effects of colonialism vividly here. The rubber barons are shown spoiling untouched land, murdering the indigenous people who inhabit it. Missions (religious outposts in the Amazon) are shown as despotic tyrants, stealing orphans of massacred Amazonian tribes, and then eradicating all remnants of their native culture, labelling their old dialect as a “pagan language.” Embrace of the Serpent isn’t subtle in critiquing the social history of Colombia, nor is it trying to be. It’s portraying history as it was.
The film is really about two expeditions. The first takes place in 1909, with Theo, a German scientist slowly dying of malaria, searching the Amazon for a sacred plant, the yakruna, that’s said to have healing abilities. The second follows a similar expedition looking for the same plant, except it’s 1940 and the scientist, named Evan, is an American. Both are led by Karamakate, a reclusive shaman and a young man in the first story and in the second considerably older (this time played by Antonio Bolívar). They exist as two different stories, but as the film slowly progresses, it makes several indications that the two scientists composite a singular arch.
There is an irony to the protagonist in Embrace of the Serpent. Karamakate, whose culture has a long history of being misunderstood, refuses to see Theo as anything other than a byproduct of a culture who had systematically murdered his people. Karamakate lacks the same perceptual nuance that would allow a foreigner to assume he is a cannibal at first glance. Embrace of the Serpent is certainly a strong political statement against European colonists, but it isn’t afraid to tip both scales. The film explores new dimensions of thought through the characters, neither representing a side that can simply be referred to as right or wrong. Most of young Karamakate’s rhetoric is strongly anti-colonial, but he isn’t simply a mouthpiece for the film’s political sentiments. He is a misguided soul, whose own options are so vague and unclear to him that he ends up accompanying the man he supposedly hates throughout his journey.
The film likes to paint a complex and multi-faceted portrait of tribal culture in the Amazon. This is specifically examined in the interaction between Karamakate and Theo’s river guide and good friend, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue). They’re brief, mostly non-talkative, but densely laden with tense cultural barriers, speaking to decades of cultural fragmentation brought on by colonization. Manduca wears Western clothing, sees the good that Theo does for his people, appreciates the knowledge he has and is fiercely loyal to him. He is particularly defensive whenever Karamakate is hostile towards Theo. Karamakate speaks to Maduca with a particular loathing, as if he were a traitor to his people, but we know this is far from the truth. The only common ground they find is through a mutual tragedy, the destruction of their land, the mass murder of their people and, most importantly, the preservation of their people’s culture.
There’s a weird, surrealist quality to the film. Embrace of the Serpent speaks to us not like a sympathetic advert, imploring us to conserve the natural landscape through impassioned pro-environmental exhortations, and more like a fever dream, evoking images, equally beautiful and haunting, forcing us to reflect on their meaning, and on ourselves.