Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
Through its sparse aesthetic design and meditative rhythm, Embrace of the Serpent recalls the austere nature-focused films of Werner Herzog and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, to name a few. Shot in super 35mm black and white and boasting a wonderful mise-en-scene with gorgeous imagery of the Amazon River and Jungle, the film transforms the amazon into a living, breathing thing. Nature is as much alive as the vagabonds who journey through, enriching their being via the spiritual qualities of the land and the many sacred prayers and plants encountered.
Based on the real diaries of two known travelers, the film chronicles each of their separate searches for the ancient yakruna plant, a medicinal plant which could help the first German born man, Theodor Koch-Grunberg, survive a terminal illness, and the second German born man, Richard Evans Schultes, extract a much needed pure rubber for his people. This plant is highly sacred to Karamakate, the last of his people, a group who considered their legends and memories to be held within this ancient plant. As the film effaces time by cutting between the two journeys, Karamakate, young and old, is center of the story as a guide for each scientist.
With Theo, a wise, respected scientist, the young Karamakate grows skeptical of his intentions and takes it upon himself to prevent the Columbians from harvesting yakruna, even if it means that Theo will be deprived. Many years later, Richard arrives with stories, but Karamakate doesn’t remember the occurrences from thirty years before. He has become a chullachaqui an image of himself, a ghost without memory that wanders the world. As his travels with Richard continue, his memories return. In an effort to redeem himself for condemning Theo, he shares the final yakruna plant with Richard. It is a measure to fulfill Theo’s purpose, for once Richard experiences the Yakruna he will share in the knowledge of Karamakate’s ancient people. He will thus be able to take back this knowledge to his people in Germany.
Knowledge, tradition, and ritual figure centrally in the themes of Embrace of the Serpent. The notion of storytelling and the passing of time is important to the native peoples in the Amazon. In an effort to transcend the limitations of time, Guerra has many shots wherein the two distinct journeys, thirty years apart, share the same space and time through long take continuity. The idea here is an ancient one, that time doesn’t exist and that everything changes and is constant flux and motion. The two journeys may thus be realized as simultaneous iterations of the same existence, distinguished only by man’s invention of time.
Much of these notions are found in the near final scene of the film when Richard’s experience with the psychotropic Yakruna plant is seen. In neon colours, life unfolds upon itself, from energy particles to the earth to galaxy’s to the pure formal pulse of the anaconda, a snake like fractal and force of energy from which all life descends. Seen through Karamakate’s open mouth, it parallel’s the Vedic understanding of Krishna, wherein the entire universe is seen in his open mouth. The film then ends on gorgeous shots of the Amazon jungle, where snake-like twists and bends resemble the energy of yakruna manifestations.
Embrace of the Serpent is confidently shot and directed, with especially fine acting from Jan Bijvoet in the role of Theo. The natural soundscape and lush aesthetic design is encapsulating, and while the series of events with Theo is stronger than the series with Richard, the film as a whole is a hypnotic exemplar of cinema as a transformative art.
The film as a whole is a hypnotic exemplar of cinema as a transformative art.