Expansive and Ambitious "Embrace of the Serpent" elicits Hug of the Critic
Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent is a masterful and genuine ethnographic exploration of the cultural exchange between white scientists/colonialists and the Indigenous Amazonian peoples. Over the course of 40 years, the journey of two scientists searching for a sacred plant with healing properties is our portal to the Amazon. Led by a shaman who is the sole survivor of his people, the reductionist view of Embrace is that it is a long winded journey that culminates in an insane drug trip – but truly, this film is about the suffocating mucus of white colonization, the cultural lenses that colour our perception, and our harmoniously human quest to find knowledge and make meaning.
Much of the genuineness of the film comes from its embeddedness in reality. The acting of both the old and the young versions of the protagonist, Karamakate, is visceral. Maybe this is because, for Nilbio Torres (who plays an angry, young Karamakate), living on the river and hunting fish, birds and rodents within the traditionally seasonal prohibition rules is part of everyday life. Whilst Antonio Bolivar (Old Karamakate) is one of the last 50 Ocaína people left in the world. There is transfixing resonance to their performances that seem to only grow from an intense grounding in reality. And it is powerful to witness.
Further authenticity lies within the audiences’ guides of Theodore, a German anthropologist, and Evan, an American Botanist, who really did travel into the Amazon. The film is based on the travel journals of these outsiders, who in their own way, seek personal gain from their travels. Interestingly, these journals are the sole modern artefacts that exist of these people. They live on in these accounts which Guerra has so deftly breathed life into. Each of his decisions hold weight beyond his 35 years. Each shot held meaning and was carefully constructed. Even Guerra’s justification for choosing to shoot the film in black and white was artfully done:
“The Amazon does not exist anymore, so all we can see is the images of the explorers in their texts. I deliberately drained my movie of the exuberance and exoticism that is associated with the Amazon.”
The recurrent animal motifs of the film represent a culturally pertinent transference of knowledge. These stories are the verbal passing on of an endangered common history that is at risk of being lost. And isn’t that dynamic oh so familiar to Australian audiences? The prohibitions that determine what can and cannot be eaten throughout specific seasons demonstrate the symbiosis between culture and earth. The rich knowledge of how to live in harmony with the environment is perhaps not given the appropriate respect in modern culture but within Embrace of the Serpent, this way of life is presented as something to be revered.
Winning a spate of awards for its striking monochromatic cinematography, Embrace is expansive and ambitious. From the unassuming journeys of an ethnographer and a botanist the audience is invited to question the limits of science, religion and culture through a dual lens. Are we, as Karamakate remarks, “the worst of both world”? Or can we salvage what is almost lost? Regardless of your answer, Embrace of the Serpent will leave you questioning long after the end credits have rolled.