Embrace of the Serpent (2015), Directed by Ciro Guerra
Two journeys are paralleled in the Amazon jungle. The first follows German scientist Theodor Koch-Grünberg in 1909. The second follows American explorer Richard Evans Schultes in 1940. What connects the passages is the shaman Karamakate, a lone survivor of his tribe, and their search for the Yakruna plant; a white flower of magical medicinal properties. The first is a voyage of discovery. The second is a return – a triumph of memory over time.
Embrace of the Serpent is the third feature film of director Ciro Guerra – written by Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde over a four year period. Based on the journals of Grünberg and Schultes, the film is an artistic record of the seldom documented, indigenous peoples of the Amazon. The creation of the film shared a kindred voyage. The crew trekked deep into vast and uncertain territory, the very land that Grünberg and Schultes traversed, with the protection of a ‘paye,’ a shaman of a local tribe. It is “a green sea” that Guerra, a Columbian native, said he knew nothing of: “The explorers have told their story. The natives haven’t. This is it. A land the size of a whole continent, yet untold. Unseen by our own cinema. That Amazon is lost now. In the cinema, it can live again.”
It is a black and white expedition through velvet shadows of jungle growth, on the silvery sheen of a winding river. The protagonists meet fragile, fading cultures, the sinister face of colonialism, and the indescribable dimension of dreams. Even for its historical notions, the characters and audience enter a foreign realm, a fantastical dream space, where man must succumb to a timeless wisdom and heed the natural rhythm of the Columbian Amazon.
A scene from 'Embrace of the Serpent' by Ciro Guerra
“In this moment, it is not possible for me to know, dear reader, if the infinite jungle has started on me the process that has taken many others that have ventured into these lands, to complete and irremediable insanity.
“If this is the case, I can only apologize and ask for your understanding, for the display I witnessed in those enchanted hours was such, that I find it impossible to describe in a language that allows others to understand its beauty and splendor; all I know is that, like all those who have shed the thick veil that blinded them, when I came back to my senses, I had become another man.” (Theodor Koch-Grünberg, 1907)
Embrace of the Serpent is the first fictional feature to be filmed in the Columbian Amazon in over thirty years, and the first film to star an indigenous protagonist. Among numerous awards, it received the Art Cinema Award in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. In addition, it has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, airing on February 28th.