It’s Oscar season, so I’ve started catching up on some of the films. I was fortunate to be sent a screener for Embrace of the Serpent, a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, and the first film ever nominated from Columbia. It is a remarkable piece of cinematic landscape. Taking place in the Amazon rainforest of Columbia and starring non-professional actors (with the exception of the two scientists), the film is a strikingly haunting black-and-white portrayal of life away from life.
Loosely inspired by the diaries of German ethnologist Theodore Koch-Grunberg and American botanist Richard Evans Schultes, Ciro Guerra’s ode to the indigenous people of the Americas is a fictional re-telling of the journeys and studies that the two scientists undertook.
Told in two different time periods – 1909 and 1940 – the tales are linked by the character of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman, purported to be the last member of his tribe. Both men – called Theo and Evan in the film – are searching for the magical Yakruna, a mystical plant which is said to have extraordinary healing powers. It reminds a lot of the recent studies that have been on the Peruvian herb Ayahuasca by Gabor Mate, Johann Hari, and others.
But more so than that, the film is a fascinating portrayal of the relationship between the largely secluded Amazonian peoples and the ideals and values of modern society. Indeed, there is a great exchange towards the end of the film, where Evan says science guides him to look for meanings in things he cannot explain and upon hearing this the elder Karamakate simply states that he must dream. He must become what it is he is seeking.
That is the kind of philosophical spirituality that is present throughout the film. Beyond the talk of Jaguars and snakes and spirit animals, the amazon jungle is treated as the principal female character in the storyline. As Guerra explained to me – this was in accordance with indigenous tradition, the belief that the Amazon embodies a female soul. While the piece also explores the difficult relationship that traditional indigenous beliefs had with the more modern Catholicism, it is more the story of the jungle itself and how it effects these five men. And it reaches a fantastic, metaphysical conclusion.
Guerra and the production took great effort to communicate and work with the traditional peoples of the Amazon and even showed them a cut of the film after it was completed. With the exception of Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis who play Theo and Evan respectively, the entire cast are locals. Guerra even explained how the production gave many behind-the-scenes roles to aboriginals as well. He is even bringing Antonio Bolivar – who played the elder Karamakate – with him to the Oscars next week.
It’s a pretty amazing feat that a black-and-white indigenous Columbian film was nominated. Yet, this film fills the viewer with so much imagination, so many infinite possibilities, so many vivid dreams. And ultimately, that was Guerra’s goal. Will you try to explain it? Or will you dream it, become it?
You are ready now