Mark Reviews Movies

Embrace of the Serpent


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ciro Guerra

Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenkü Migue, Nicolás Cancino, Luigi Sciamanna

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 2:05

Release Date: 2/17/16 (limited); 3/11/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 10, 2016

The old ways die. The new ones, having killed the old ones, start to look similar to the old ways, albeit in a different form and with altered names. That's the way of the world in Embrace of the Serpent, a meditative study of how people destroy the things they need in order to obtain the things they want. It's a story about the impact of industry and imperialism on a place that and a people who have no use for such things. The story is told over two separate periods of time and features a shared character who might as well be dead in the first period and very well may be dead in the second.

The times are 1909 and a few decades later. The place is the Amazon jungle. The characters are two scientists, who have come to the Amazon decades apart to seek its mysteries, and a local shaman, who is the last member of his tribe.

The film is based on the diaries of the two real-life scientists who are portrayed here. They went to the Amazon looking to open up this "exotic" place to the world at large with the goal of expanding human knowledge of the planet, but when the first arrived, he discovered this place already had been opened to the world. Europeans were there, with industrialists seeking the sap from rubber trees and missionaries looking for souls that could be saved.

Co-writer/director Ciro Guerra ties those two goals together, seeing little difference between the white men who want to turn the native people into enslaved workers and the ones who want to turn them into enslaved worshippers. Both deny these people of their freedom, their beliefs, their language, and everything else that encompasses their cultural identity—the very things that these European visitors want to preserve for themselves.

It's not that simple, though. These may be the new ways, but if the new ways start to look like the old ones, doesn't it also follow that the old ways looked like the new ones? Guerra and co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal (working from the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes) understand this.

The film may be angry at the effects of European influence on the native people of the region, but it also recognizes the goals of these scientists, who want to learn and share knowledge, not exploit. The film may be appalled by the way the Europeans, because of their sense of superiority, feel entitled to treat the indigenous people of the area as less-than-human entities, but it also refuses to see that attitude as something unique to the foreigners. The scientists are an exception, of course, but the shaman, based on his own religious beliefs, also sees people from other tribes as lesser entities. His people were born of the great anaconda in the sky. The others were not, and as a result, he does not believe they deserve his trust or respect.

The film isn't just a portrayal of the battle between the old and the new. It's a lament for the ways in which they reflect each other and deny some more elemental understanding of the world.

The shaman is named Karamakate. The two scientists are Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and Evan (Brionne Davis). In the earlier timeframe, a young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres, a non-professional actor from the region) encounters Theo and his guide Manduca (Yauenkü Migue). Theo is ill, but Karamakate is hesitant to help the European man. His tribe has been wiped out by the rubber barons who have come to the Amazon. Theo tells Karamakate that he has seen remnants of the shaman's people, and if Karamakate heals him, the scientist will take him to them.

In the latter timeframe, an old Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar, another amateur performer, who is one of the last members of a local tribe) meets Evan, who has come to the Amazon to seek a rare plant called yakruna, which is fabled to possess great healing powers. The old shaman believes he has become a mere shell of a human being, and having forgotten himself, he does not remember the way to the location of the mythical plant.

In the earlier period, Karamakate is the guide, leading a man to the plant because that man needs it, and in the latter period, Karamakate is being led to the plant by a man seeking the plant because the man wants it. In the further past, Karamakate sets forth rules for the scientist to follow—rules that help to maintain the natural order (At one point, Theo, in a feverish state, breaks a rule, claiming that nature's bounty is limitless—exactly the rationale of those razing the land). In the less distant past, Karamakate has forgotten the rules. The scientists are seeking the same thing but for different purposes.

The film's dual timelines coexist and shift without warning, forcing us to examine and re-examine the relationship between them, as well as the relationships between the characters and locations shared between these periods of time. It's not as simple as a proposition in the earlier period being answered by the latter one, although Guerra and Vidal do use that setup to devastating effect when it arises. Take a pair of sequences set at a mission. Earlier in history, the young Karamakate and his companions come across a Christian mission where young boys are whipped like the slaves of the rubber plantations. Later, the old Karamakate and his companion find the same mission, where the boys have become men and have followed the teachings of that religion to a horrifying, seemingly inevitable end.

The backdrop to this story is a section of the actual Amazon rainforest (What remains after over a century of what the film depicts), captured in stunning black-and-white by cinematographer David Gallego. It looks otherworldly or primordial—a place removed from any sense of time or humanity. In a sense, Embrace of the Serpent sees this as a third way, much older and more fundamental than any devised by humans. We reach out to grasp for understanding of it, as a figure in one of Karamakate's drawings reaches toward the sky, but it continues to elude us, as it always has in one period of time or another.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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