El Abrazo de la Serpiente
DIRECTED BY: Ciro Guerra
FEATURING: Antonio Bolivar, Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis
PLOT: In two journeys separated by decades, an Amazonian hermit and shaman reluctantly guides two European scientists on trips to find a legendary medicinal plant.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too weird to win an Academy Award, but not weird enough for us. Still, fans of Werner Herzog‘s Amazonian epics and Apocalypse Now will find a lot to connect with here, while Embrace retains its own feverish flavor.
COMMENTS: As cinema’s first black and white arthouse ethnobotany trip movie, Embrace of the Serpent is a singular event. More based on setting than plot, the languid, reflective trip upriver may grow wearisome for some, but will reward the patient. The emerald Amazon jungle is subsumed into a grayscale haze, making the trip seem both like a vintage period picture and a dream.
One of the Embrace‘s biggest strengths is that it generally steers away from the lectern, instead delivering an eye-level view of a historic culture clash. We see that the Amazonian tribes aren’t inherently virtuous, but can be just as petty, selfish and inhospitable as their white brethren. The examination of the effect of European ideas (aside from the obvious evils like slavery) on the Amazonian natives is nuanced. European Theo argues the tribes should not have a compass because he believes that access to such easy technology will cause their indigenous methods of orientation using astronomy and knowledge of the winds to fade away. His guide Karamakate, who otherwise hates white culture precisely for its capacity to displace his own, unexpectedly makes the cosmopolitan argument that “knowledge belongs to all men.” The compass debate reveals a more complicated analysis than the simple “brown man good, white man bad” anti-colonial dogmatism you might have feared. Karamakate, too, is far from a simplistic noble savage; he can be peevish, manipulative, and bigoted in his own way. Karamakate is far more noble for the flaws that make him into more than a mere symbol or stereotype.
The tone is quiet, melancholy, and mystical. The older Karamakate complains of having become a “chullachaqui,” a sort of shell or wraith, a doppelganger stripped of vitality, memory and purpose. Those looking for surreal thrills will want to pay attention to the two stops at a mission along the way. The earlier expedition is reluctantly hosted at a remote Christian outpost where a single surviving priest oversees a colony of Amazonian orphans. When they return decades later, the mission has devolved into a strange and anarchic cult blending native beliefs with Christian ones. This imaginary sociological experiment is so intoxicating that you may wish the entire movie had been built around this location. The film finishes with a somewhat superfluous color hallucination sequence full of geometric fractals and jaguars that plays either like a more sedate version of Altered States‘s mushroom trips, or like 2001‘s climax with an ecological spin.
The plant the European scientists seek, yakruna, is known by the Latin name “Macguffinus plotdevicis.” It becomes whatever the story needs it to be at the time: a mind-expanding psychedelic, a panacea for ills of both the body and soul, a symbol of Karamakate’s tribal identity. It’s “the stuff that dreams are made of,” and by the end it goes up in smoke, becoming not much of anything at all. Embrace is a leisurely trip downriver towards a muddy allegory, but there are moments when you feel like Col. Kurtz is waiting just around the next bend.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Filled with dream imagery, never-quite-explained symbolism, and a collection of weird (and inhospitable) characters that might have emerged from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust or the more feverish fever dreams of Werner Herzog — with more than a little of Mr. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now around the edges.”–Ken Hanke, Mountain XPress (contemporaneous)