By Dorany Pineda
Director Ciro Guerra’s Academy Award-nominated film epic, “Embrace of the Serpent” is a stunning and deeply-felt film that spans 40 years of colonial history.
Set in the Colombian Amazon at the turn of the century, “Embrace of the Serpent” centers on Karamakate, played by Nilbio Torres, a shaman and one of the last surviving members of his tribe to survive the destructions of white invaders who ravaged the rain forests for rubber.
When Manduca, a man from a different tribe, played by Yauenku Miguee, brings him Theo, a disease-stricken German scientist, played by Jan Bijvoet, Karamakate at first refuses to take them to the fabled yakruna flower that can heal him. But when Theo offers to take Karamakate to the remainder of his tribe’s people, Karamakate agrees to help. Thus begins the treacherous journey that takes the three men deep into the Amazon wilderness where one-armed men plead for death, sacred ceremonies with psychedelic plants take place and indigenous children are ruled and beaten for speaking in their native “pagan language” by Spanish priests in a Catholic mission: a place set deep in the recesses of the jungle where the nightmare of Western invasion is starkly and devastatingly revealed.
Years later, with a much older Karamakate played by Antonio Bolivar Salvador, he encounters an American explorer named Evans, played by Brionne Davis, and they go on a trip in search of the same yakruna plant that saved the life of another Western explorer. This is an expedition very much like the one 40 years prior, but much less harrowing. Its tone mourns the irreparable damage of the rainforest and the loss of their indigenous cultures and civilizations.
These 40 year time-jumps between past and present often occur without cuts that underline the residual and continued presence of a colonized past on an adversely affected postcolonial future.
Though visceral and beautifully made, “Embrace of the Serpent” is not the kind of movie to watch for pleasure. Its pace crawls gruelingly through many points of the film and feels like it elaborates unnecessarily on minor things, which disrupts the otherwise hypnotic spell cast by the raw beauty and force of the forest.
Guerra’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white is effective in the way it heightens the psychedelic experience and intensifies its impact as a whole, but its lack of color feels like it is robbed of the rich hues of the Amazon, but perhaps that was precisely the point.
Despite the moments when the film felt like it should have ended, “Embrace of the Serpent” is an incredibly poignant view into not only the devastating consequences of colonial forces on people and their environments, but the value in preserving their histories.