“Embrace of the Serpent” is a Colombian-Venezuelan-Argentine co-production that was released in Colombia in 2015 directed by Colombian director Ciro Guerra. It is Guerras third feature film and was nominated for best foreign language film at the 88th academy awards. The film draws inspiration from the diaries of two scientists, Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) from Germany, and Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) from the US. They both respectively operated in the Amazon about 40 years apart, from the end of the 19th century through the end of World War II. The film describes their journey to find a rare medicinal plant in the jungles of the Amazon, and ranges from two periods in which both scientists meet the same Amazonian shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres & Antontio Bolivar), who accompanies and helps them. Karamakate is the last of his tribe to be found in the jungle, and his joining the white men is accompanied by a desire to find his lost community and regain knowledge lost as a result of him being a shaman without a community.
In shamanic terms, existence in its entirety is always conducted through two-way dynamics, in which one element cannot solely receive without giving, and vice versa. The journeys of the men in the film depict the complexity of this dynamic through a narrative according to which all three are seeking something new or lost, and in this pursuit must give something along the way. This dynamic is the basis of the shamanic way. Therefore in the prologue that precedes the subtitles, the young Karamakate imposes a law prohibiting adding or taking life from the jungle. That is to say, it is forbidden to hunt and to have relations with women. Colombian rubber merchants, Christian missionaries, and foreign arms dealers caused the imbalance that required the law, and Karamakate’s dislike of Theo (the first scientist he encounters) stems from his existence as part of the invading body.
Despite his ambivalence, he joins Theo upon being assured that members of his tribe still exist.
Guerra chose to film this Amazonian drama in black-and-white withholding the pleasurable images of green leaves, red mud, and blue water that adorns these enchanting spaces. This is a clever neutralization of the point of view that characterizes other films such as Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” or even Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God,” which provides viewers with an exotic hypnotic pleasure that distracts attention from the principle. Another goal that this choice achieves is keeping Karamakate’s point of view to himself without allowing anyone else to invade, including both the viewers and the other characters. Only the shaman sees the jungle in its true colors, only he sees its true beauty without the selfish interest brought by the stranger. The scientists, on the other hand, see the space they find themselves in with a reservation and a balance between supply and demand — what does the jungle have to offer me and how I can take it? As mentioned, they are yet to learn to give as well.
Another of Guerra’s choices distinguishes Karamakate’s point of view as is expressed in the relation between shots. In conventional editing, when two characters are separated by two different shots, it will be clear to the viewer based on the direction of each respective character’s gaze where others are situated in opposite shots. Guerra chose that in most cases the gaze of the shaman would not be toward the point in which the foreigner is situated, but rather at another point in space, another point in the jungle that tells the shaman more than he would learn from directly gazing at the character. Thus, for example, in the two scenes of the first meeting with the white strangers, Karamakate’s gaze is not at the point in the river from which the canoe is arriving, but rather at the canopy of trees or running streams. He knows that they are arriving even before the canoe appears in the opposite shot. Even before we as viewers know. This choice also reinforces the sense that all a foreigner has to do is learn to see the jungle on its deepest layers, so as to understand what the space has to tell them.
In keeping with the importance of the non-human world to the shaman, Guerra also provides a unique perspective on the animals and plants of the jungle. Following the prologue that marks the beginning of the journey, a scene is depicted, accompanied by a shamanic psalm, of a huge anaconda snake giving birth to dozens of new snakes. The anecdote, according to the native locals, is the source of the world, and relating to its importance as a source of knowledge and wisdom is repeated over and over throughout the plot. Another animal that appears toward the end of Theo’s journey, and during one of the most dramatic points in the plot, is the jaguar. In extreme contrast between a wide shot of the scientist winding down the great river, and a close-up of the jaguar’s face moving among the leaves, Guerra depicts tremendous drama. The predatory animal finds the same snake from the beginning of the film and eats its offspring. The sounds of the jungle and the extreme contrast between the shots gives the impression that this is not a natural hunt and that the jungle remains unbalanced.
These aesthetic and thematic elements converge into a work that compellingly addresses the sense in which the shamanic essence of amorphous life and true borderlessness between dimensions of reality, runs against conventional western conceptions of isolated human existence. In some of the white scientists’ moments of crisis in the film, they both express frustration at the spiritual detachment from which they suffer. Theo claims that the shamanic ritual plants do not influence him, whereas Richard is frustrated that he does not dream. For both matters, and at the two different points in time, Karamakate refuses to help without them going through a journey that will reveal their authentic truth to them.
Once Karamakate realizes that this is the two men’s true quest, and that their quests are similar to his own, he no longer perceives them as foreigners, but rather as lost souls like him and is thus willing to help them. His approach is not corporeal, and even when he eases the physical pain of men he is helping, as he explicitly explains to them, it is solely symptomatic. “The disease itself will disappear only when they learn to dream,” he explains.
On a physical level, Guerra’s film does not spare the viewer scenes of severe violence. The men in the film are tortured, lost and sick, and the plot primarily depicts a very difficult, painful, violent process of the encounter between the world of knowledge and forgotten memories.
In an article that describes, among other things, the process of imparting shamanic forces, Charles Lindholm explains that entering the other world is necessarily a matter of suffering, fear, or pain. He refers to both the way in which shamans receive their magical ability, and the corresponding world in which, in most cases, they will encounter animals that may cause pain and death, such as snakes, panthers, lions, bears, and more (Lindholm, 2009). This perception is not alien to Guerra and he does not spare us viewers suffering and pain. A particularly difficult scene depicts a Christian priest and his abuse of small local children whom he wishes to bring closer to Christianity and to distance from Satan’s world, as he perceives the shaman’s world and local culture.
To strengthen this element of suffering and pain, Guerra places the character of Manduca, to bridge Karamakate’s world to that of Theo, and whose scarred body embodies the essence of violence.
Manduca was formerly a slave to a rubber tradesman, whom Theo bought and made his assistant. Karamakate still dismissively perceives him as a slave, but when Manduca cannot bear the children’s crying and resists the abusive priest, he gains Karamakate’s honor. Manduca knows how to identify suffering and pain that do not belong in the jungle, and this knowledge provides him with the ability to move in space, entitling him with Karamakate’s respect.
The trio’s journey continues into Karamakate’s lost community, where he discovers that it, too, has been corrupted by hunger, ignorance, and paranoia. Unlike Karamakate himself, whose only weapon is a blowpipe and arrows made of materials from the jungle, in the village to which he arrives, he sees rifles around him and immediately identifies a foreign presence that has corrupted his community. The plant that Theo is seeking is also located in the outskirts of the village, but as the villagers use it to escape from reality and not to acquire knowledge, Karamakate decides to burn the rare tree altogether. Horrified by the destructive image of the shaman standing among the flames, the sick Theo escapes from the riot with Manduca, as Colombian rubber traders arrive and massacre the villagers. This is a particularly dramatic scene reminiscent of the films of the Argentine director Fernando Solanas, which primarily address the ills of colonialism in the Third World, characterized by metaphoric and sometimes absurd narratives that reflect broad political ideas.
Yet while the film contains strong political characteristics, its mystical characteristics are even stronger. Guerra himself describes this in an interview for the British site HeyUGuys, noting that the emphasis is not on the brutal colonial history and suffering of the natives, but that the central theme is rather that of knowledge, and how people from different places can bridge gaps with its help.
Returning to the journey of Richard and old Karamakate, here we near the dramatic climax of the film. Richard finally agrees to part with his many crates to allow for more fluid movement along the river. The only thing he is not willing to discard is his record player. This point in the film is significant as one of the recurring motifs is the importance of music in shamanic experience. Throughout the plot, Karamakate repeatedly describes the importance and manner in which music is the key to memory. This motif is based on the great importance of sounds and harmonies in shamanic culture; during the shamanic ritual, the process will lead to a psalm or rhythm that will connect and bridge between the worlds, helping the spirits find their way without getting lost (De Rios, 2003).
In this sense, music is a memory lost to the old Karamakate as he describes himself as a mistaken spirit (“Chullachaqui” in his tongue). And when he realizes that Richard, too, is completely lost between worlds, he takes him to the top of a mountain where they find the last remnant of a plant that was burned 40 years earlier.
On the summit above the river and at the dramatic climax of the film, Richard reveals that he is not a plant researcher but rather a rubber trader in the service of the US Army at the height of World War II. Feeling betrayed, Karamakate presses Richard’s blade to his own throat saying that it is his duty to die, for the jungle will die with him — the knowledge will die with him. The white stranger is alone with the shaman on a mountain peak and is frightened and lost.
The shaman deems the frightened Richard a Chullachaqui, forcing him into the world of lost souls. Understanding the meaning of the name, Richard collapses to the ground.
This is the last part of the film and the two men sit down for a ceremony in which Richard will drink the strongest extract, one that will greet him with the great snake, which will take him to the world before life and teach him who he really is. “Let her embrace you,” the shaman tells him as he draws rings on his back and gives him the extract. “Give her more than she asks,” he tells him, reminding him that the balance between giving and receiving must be restored.
The viewer now enters the ceremony through Richard’s eyes as Karamakate approaches us with his gaze at the camera lens and exhales the powder that begins the ceremony.
In the same interview for the British site, Guerra explains the meaning of the film’s name and describes some of the Amazonian mythology in which giant anaconda snakes are said to have brought about the first people, teaching them how to live in harmony with the jungle. The Amazon River is the trail left behind by the snakes and the medicinal plants are man’s means of communication with the snakes that returned to heaven.
As soon as a Karamakate exhales the powder we see the same path of snakes in a series of aerial shots. The river spreads before us from an angle we have not yet seen.
After a few moments the image of the young shaman appears, he opens his eyes gleaming with a white glow and widens his mouth, which completely burns the frame. The viewer is sent to the galaxy and its thousands of stars, and then for the first time since the beginning of the film, color is visible. A series of shots of abstract forms in vibrant colors. There is no way of saying what these forms represent, and yet there is a very clear sense of language. Simple formative repetition provides a sense that these images are not arbitrary.
Just as the journey of the healing shamanic ritual takes nothing trivial or arbitrary, the same holds true for Guerra’s film. Even when matters seem abstract to the point of meaninglessness, meaning may still be drawn from each frame. The character of Karamakate knows this just as the film director does. In the last shot of the film Richard stands on the banks of the Amazon surrounded by white butterflies. He knows that even though Karamakate left him, he is not alone, and we viewers understand this, too. The greatness of the film is that it manages to draw us into the world of the shaman in which each fluctuation of a leaf has meaning, there is something to be learned from every step an animal takes in the forest, and each stream of the great river has a story to tell. By the end of the film, despite its supposed conceptual ambiguity, the viewer is not lost in a meaningless world and knows how to read a language beyond spoken text or words, beyond human traits, and beyond the real in the natural world. This is the power of the shaman and this film depicts that with full force.
De Rios, Marlene Dobkin. The Role of Music in Healing with Hallucinogens: Tribal and western studies. Music Therapy Today. Vol. IV (3) June 2003ץ
Lindholm, Charles. Charisma, Shamanism And Cults: The Construction of evil. Department of Anthropology Boston University.