Director: Ciro Guerra
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis
Running Time: 123 Minutes
“Science… never solves a problem without creating ten more”
The Amazon is still to this day one of the greatest wonders and mysteries of the world. With Circo Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, we are given a grand tour of beautiful South America and the numerous tribes that dwell there. The film is luscious and hypnotic as we peer into the depth of the rarest of civilizations and the decay that follows when intruders come through, disrupting the natural order. The film spans two separate interwoven narratives that cover the first few decades of the twentieth century. Guerra is unflinching with a secular vision that challenges the audience to ponder the effects of colonialism, our generation’s gentrification. The film shows numerous vignettes of the white man making his mark thinking he is solving one problem but creating several more. This is ignorance at its finest.
This film is thematically similar to another favorite of mine, Aguirre the Wrath of God. I couldn’t help but reminisce on how they both stun you in a visual manner; the characters take a back seat to the numerous surroundings of the Amazon, an uncompromising jungle that heeds for no one. Embrace of the Serpent boasts fine cinematography with sharp black and white visuals to coincide with the barren subject matter. Without this keen detail in place, the film may have been relegated to mediocrity, it’s that good.
Loosely inspired by journals of a few men who rummaged through the Amazon, Embrace Of The Serpent tells dual stories set decades apart, about a couple of scientists/explorers, one named Evan (Brionne Davis) and the other, a very sick and slowly dying, Theodore (Jan Bijvoet) who are both chauffeured, Uber-style on the waters of the Amazon, by the enigmatic Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), a shaman, who is the last and sole survivor of his tribe. Juxtaposing the explorers, here is a man who has lost at the hands of imperialism. Nonetheless, Karamakate hesitantly helps both men journey into the depths of a nightmare-like journey to find a mythical white flower called yakruna.
Although this film was a joy to watch and experience it isn’t without its flaws. For starters, it runs a tad too long, retreading some of the storyline a few too many times. It also came off a bit too preachy. While the theme is effervescent throughout (“beware the white man”), the film at times struggles to create a cohesive experience outside those parameters; some of the short stories that are sprinkled throughout fail to evoke a unique perspective on how some of these indigenous people coexist with one another on a day to day level. It focused too largely on the false vivaciousness of the explorers and invaders who taint and alter the lives of many indigenous people. With that said, this film cannot be ignored; it is an important meditation on the value of tradition and the horrors of losing what is sacred. The most haunting aspect of Embrace of the Serpent is asking yourself, how many cultures have been destroyed because of senseless invasions, war, religion and greed? …And then realizing that, the more things change, the more things stay the same.