Somewhere between Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the writings of Colombian philosopher Santiago Castro-Gómez lies Ciro Guerra’s film Embrace of the Serpent.
Shot in stunning 35mm black and white film in the Amazon, Embrace of the Serpent is a dream-like manifestation of the psychotropic diaries of two ethno-botanists’ encounter with an Amazonian shaman.
Switching between the past and the further past, the American Richard Evans Schultes reaches the shaman in 1940 while the German, Theodor Koch-Grunberg reaches finds him in 1909.
While the explorers are cultured of the traditional ways of the tribes they encounter, they still seek the knowledge of the shaman Karamakate and the scarce and sacred plant yakruna.
The yakruna plant is sought by both Schutles and Grunberg because it is believed to have hallucinogenic effects and the power to heal and extend life.
Through their journey slithering up rivers and stopping in villages for supplies, they encounter the harsh tribal living conditions of the natives.
In one village they encounter a Christian priest and his displaced tribal children, to whom he is teaching the ways of the church. The priest greets the explorers with a raised gun; he is afraid that they are thieves scouring the lands for precious rubber from trees.
Although displeased with Karamakate’s “savage” tongue, the priest reluctantly gives them trades them shelter for provisions. At night the three travelers are awoken by screams. They discover the priest whipping some of the children.
In another haunting section of the film the travelers happen upon a rubber tree plantation camp where a tortured native slave pleads for them to kill him and end his suffering.
These scenes are strong commentaries of the presence of European imperialism in the Amazon and the displacement of tribal life through religious tyranny.
Director Guerra also asserts that the film is a plea for viewers to understand the profound knowledge of the earth held by indigenous cultures of the Amazon.
While suspicious of the white men’s quest in the Amazon, Karamakate spiritually guides them through the jungle in search of the yakruna plant. Although Schultes’ and Gunberg’s quest for the plant is, to them, innocent and logical, it’s portrayed in the film as a representation of the west’s greed, and misunderstanding of indigenous knowledge.
The knowledge of the plant and how Karamakate protects this knowledge represents the disdain and contempt indigenous people have for explorers.
Director Guerra gives no clemency to the explorers of the west or the church, which penetrated Latin America with greed for natural goods and salvation. As if a cry for environmental justice, this film could easily be about cocoa, mining or any other resource exploited by western interests.
Guerra asserts that while the explorers separate human beings from nature, conversely, the shaman and the tribal people remain inextricably linked to nature.
Embrace of the Serpent is a truly thought provoking film. It screens on Sunday, Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Yukon Arts Centre, following Werner Herzog’s latest documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.