Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpiente) (2015)


Image via embraceoftheserpent.oscilloscope.net

I recommend seeing a film you know nothing about on a Sunday morning. I was the only person in one of Nova’s subterranean cinemas for this black and white Colombian journey into the Amazon and a history of cultural decimation. There are two overlapping stories, both of white scientists on a search for a rare healing plant, guided through the jungle by loner Karamakate and separated by 30 years.

German Theo in 1909 is documenting the people and plants of the region and his guide Manduca seeks Karamakate’s help when Theo is stricken by a mortal illness. Thirty years later, Evan follows in his footsteps, purportedly to find out if his writings were true but we, and Karamakate, suspect his interests may be more pecuniary. The two storylines allow us to see what has become of the indigenous people as a result of the greed for rubber and as a consequence of Theo, Manduca and Karamakate’s interventions thirty years earlier.

The black and white cinematography is beautiful, rendering a timeless other-worldliness to the two journeys. The message is clear, that white people, well-meaning or not, understand nothing about the symbiosis of  indigenous people with their country and this ignorance of superiority ensures they will unwittingly destroy it all.

The character of Karamakate is played by two people as a young and an old man and he is the heart of the film. He can see what is happening and tries to minimise the loss. In many ways he represents the indigenous culture, struggling to remember the vital knowledge he carried as a youth, knowing what this loss means. Theo and Evan represent two different colonial archetypes; the paternalistic and the despotic.

A beautiful and sobering film.

Bechdel test – fails
3.5 stars

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