Director: Ciro Guerra
Embrace of the Serpent is Colombia’s first nomination for the Foreign Language Oscar, and was filmed entirely in the country’s southern rain-forests. Beautifully shot in black and white, the landscapes are immense and terrifying, and the storytelling is surreal and dreamlike. The best comparison I can think of is Apocalypse Now, and by extension Heart of Darkness – a story where haunted characters make a journey through a hostile environment, told in a way that drifts in and out of fevered insanity.
Karamakate is an Amazonian shaman and the last surviving member of his tribe. The film follows two expeditions he makes into the heart of the jungle, decades apart, each time guiding a white man in search of the legendary yakruna plant.
The first takes place in 1909. The German explorer Theo von Martius is desperately seeking yakruna, which he believes may cure the tropical disease he has contracted. Karamakate is hesitant, but eventually agrees to help him find it and together they begin a dangerous journey up the Amazon river. Along the way, they encounter increasingly disturbing scenes of madness and violence by both Amazonians and Europeans.
In 1940 an older, more cynical Karamakate is approached by Evan, an American, and again asked to help find yakruna. Evan is much more secretive about his reasons for searching for the plant, but Karamakate again reluctantly agrees to make the journey. They pass the same locations as before, but in the intervening time many of them have become even more unsettling – sometimes due to Karamakate’s own actions in 1909.
Embrace of the Serpent is perhaps the most fascinating film to be made in the Amazon rain-forest since Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. It’s an epic adventure film in the purest sense, but with a dark and profoundly disturbing style that makes it especially memorable. Tranquil scenes of natural beauty are juxtaposed with vivid drug hallucinations and scenes of shocking violence. Most interesting, though, is the way it inverts the typical narrative of “jungle movies” by placing an indigenous character in the lead role. Karamakate is a compelling character whose guardedness and crushing loneliness are explored in a way that avoids both the stereotype of the uncivilised brute and that of the noble savage.