A Snake is One Slippery, Spectacular Creature

Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)
(Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina, 125 min.)
Dir. Ciro Guerra, Writ. Ciro Guerra, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
Starring: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Anontio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenkü Migue
Photo courtesy Northern Banner Releasing.

A snake is one slippery, spectacular creature. Embrace of the Serpent is equally elusive. This Colombian odyssey and nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Oscar race refuses to take a straight line. It’s as windy and slithery as a serpent and it speaks with a forked tongue.

Embrace of the Serpent takes two trips down the same river as past and present cross paths in a feverish collage of parallel journeys. One story, set around 1907, features real-life explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet, The Broken Circle Breakdown) and charts a trip through the Colombian Amazon as the nation undergoes the ravages of colonialism. The other narrative flows down the same waters, but in 1940, as scientist Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) witnesses the devastation caused by the previous generation of explorers, settlers, and visitors. Both encounters feature the same guide, Karamakate, played by Nilbio Torres in the past and Antonio Bolivar in the later scenes, who is an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of a people who have been conquered and ravaged like the Colombian landscape. As the two boats travel the same path along the serpentine waters, the film likens the exploits of these journeymen to a hungry serpent that consumes itself. The Ourubouros represents an infinite process, and Embrace of the Serpent asks if this self-eating snake is the right path for humanity.

Director/co-writer Ciro Guerra (The Wind Journeys) unfolds these two odysseys with a hallucinatory rhythm that escapes time or logic. The film draws upon the diaries of the two explorers, but it firmly rejects their straightforward narratives in favour of the unwritten experience of indigenous warriors like Karamakate, who carry the story of their people within themselves. The film adopts a tone of oral storytelling as Karamakate’s journeys down the river unfurl in an episodic structure. Déjà vu ripples throughout the film as the older man recalls similar stories that he shared with another traveller in a much younger life. The history books tell one story, but the film offers another.

Karamakate watches the action that happens on the shores of the Amazon with skeptical curiosity. Through his eyes, the actions of the German and Spanish explorers and colonists don’t portray the same air of victory that recorded narratives suggest. This trip through the Amazon is akin to a descent into hell as Karamakate and his passengers witness the corruption of a way of life and the devastation of a people. The gesture is as simple as giving a compass to an indigene, which erases a natural sense of direction and an aptitude for following the stars; more grave is the effect of organized religion—that cursed devil—as Karamakate and his passengers witness two bizarre tragedies that see missionaries run amok. One is the all-too-familiar story of child abuse at the hands of priests, while another takes the ritual of feasting on Christ’s body to new extremes. The journey is both serene and surreal as Guerra devises scenarios that arise like living nightmares.

Told in a mix of Spanish and Amazonian dialect, Embrace of the Serpent puts two generations in dialogue to challenge one’s notion of progress. As Karamakate sees the ongoing ravages of capitalism, he also sees the native Colombians ever-growing embrace of their colonial masters. The film offers a narrative of resistance as Karamakate sees through the materialism and empiricism of his passengers. To them, he might be a relic for a museum, but he casts an intoxicating spell of timeless enchantment.

The film is doubly allegorical with cinematography by David Gallego that captures the Amazon in exquisite black and white. The move is curious since the lush green of the Amazon and the man colours of its flora and fauna seem tailor-made for the big screen, but Embrace of the Serpent rejects the view of the setting as something romantic and alluring. The film instead favours the raw, mythic power of the waters and the ghosts that linger in the shadows. Guerro’s greyscale tapestry evokes the fluidity of Brazil’s Cinema Novo with the mysterious charm of French New Wave filmmaking.

Embrace of the Serpent becomes stranger and dreamier the further one goes into the forest, for the deeper one goes, the darker it gets. The strangeness of the film increases as Karamakate “heals” his passengers, particularly Theo who suffers some sort of near-fatal ailment, by blowing a powdery smoke up his nose. The effect injects the viewer with hypnotic reverie—Embrace of the Serpent is like licking a hallucinogenic frog and eating some popcorn—as images and sounds whirl, putting jaguars, reptiles, and birds as intense symbols of folklore, roots, tradition, and corruption. Don’t try to make sense of it in a linear fashion, but rather drink it down and swim in its intoxicating waters.

The abstract nature of the film poses a challenge for viewers, but the rewards come in a cinematic hangover that becomes clearer as time passes. It’s a journey into uncharted waters worth exploring.

Embrace of the Serpent opens Feb. 19 in Toronto (TIFF Lightbox), Ottawa (Mayfair Theatre), Halifax (Carbon Arc Cinema), and on Feb 26 in Waterloo (Princess Cinema).