Editor’s Notes: Embrace of the Serpent opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King St W) on Friday February 19th.
Embrace of the Serpent, Colombia’s entry to the 88th Academy Awards which received a foreign-language category nomination, ends with a dedication to “peoples whose song we will never know”. This is a fitting postscript for a film in which, while not feeling overtly preachy, we gain an immense understanding of one such individual who is seldom heard.
. . . while not feeling overtly preachy, we gain an immense understanding of one such individual who is seldom heard.
That individual is Karamakate (Nilbio Torres as the young, Antonio Bolivar as the old), a lone native in the forests of Colombia. Theo (Jan Bijvoet) is a German scientist, riddled with disease, who must rely upon Karamakate to navigate to safety and health care. In exchange, Theo promises to lead Karamakate to his surviving tribesmen, living miles and miles and a world away. Four decades later, a still-solo Karamakate, a bit more confused and wise as the years chip away at the lone man, helps a traveler named Evan (Brionne Davis) in his search for yakruna, a plant of mysterious existence. Despite cross-cutting between these two time frames, there are two constants which help bind these two halves of the film together. The first is Karamakate, a different man in the two twisting narratives, yet altogether the same. Set on the banks of the Amazon river, the second constant is the river itself, which is often the mode of transition between the two time periods. Even as director Ciro Guerra utilizes these timeframes to send a similar message, it’s stunning how uniform it feels in using the river as a mode of transport through time.
Without appearing forceful, Embrace of the Serpent gives us the environmental predilections of two distinctly different cultures.
As much as a plot summary attempts to do the film justice, the stories begin to multiply inside of themselves as the film moves on. At one point, Evan and the older Karamakate stop in at a mission on the banks of the river, one which Karamakate (and the audience) has seen before. Where the mission was, in another period, a place of terrifying education for rescued orphans of the rubber wars, now it is the closed-off epicenter to another religious variety. While I won’t spoil it all here, the implications of this kind of run-in, and how closed off environments can evolve over decades, are an endlessly fascinating aside in a movie which otherwise addresses the implications of systems affected by outside forces.
In fact, the rubber boom in the Amazonian region makes its way into many facets of the story, both old and new. Karamakate at one point states point blank: “Rubber is death”. And to many, that’s what it is; the source of wealth for some, and pain for many more in the indigenous population. It also shapes many of the interactions seen in the film, the reactions between the locals and the “whites”, and has an impact on the environmental message of the film. Young Karamakate demands that Theo keep the prohibitions (diet restrictions, chiefly), lest humans deplete the natural resources of the river and the land. Later, when Evan claims that he has “dedicated his whole life to plants”, older Karamakate responds: “That might be the most logical thing I’ve heard a white say”. Without appearing forceful, Embrace of the Serpent gives us the environmental predilections of two distinctly different cultures.
While the film doesn’t feel very kinetic (despite the movement and travel associated with the parallel journeys), Embrace of the Serpent never seems to drag until it attempts to extend into the spiritual realm of Karamakate’s beliefs. It isn’t that this topic isn’t interesting, rather the script emphasizes the audience’s place alongside Evan’s perspective, so when Evan says that he cannot understand or see the jaguar or the serpent, it’s hard for us to keep up as well.
Nonetheless, Embrace of the Serpent takes two stories, the most recent of which is set over 70 years ago, and presents them in a way which makes them feel prescient and timely. When cultures meet, there are inevitably differences and conflicts. However, for a filmmaking team to be able to capture these small but significant moments on a backdrop of natural resources imperialism in a way that never feels to overt or preachy, is truly a mesmerizing achievement.
When cultures meet, there are inevitably differences and conflicts. However, for a filmmaking team to be able to capture these small but significant moments on a backdrop of natural resources imperialism in a way that never feels to overt or preachy, is truly a mesmerizing achievement.