Embrace of the Serpent

From Embrace of the Serpent

Drama, 125 minutes, not rated, in Spanish, German, Catalan, and Portuguese with subtitles, Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, Violet Crown; 3:15 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles. 

Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s film, a Cannes award-winner, is a mesmerizing adventure tale set in the Amazon rain forest. The film boasts outstanding black-and-white cinematography by David Gallego. The story follows two narratives, one set in the early 1900s and the other in the 1940s, and moves back and forth between them to follow the adventures of two men on parallel journeys, each searching for the rare yakruna, a flower with valuable healing properties.

Guerra and co-screenwriterJacques Toulemonde Vidal based the screenplay on the early and mid-20th century journals of German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg (played by Jan Bijvoet) and American explorer Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis). The men are accompanied on their journeys by Karamakate, a shaman,  played by Nilbio Torres as a young man and Antonio Bolivar when the character is older. Karamakate is nearly the last surviving member of his tribe. He is mistrustful of the white men and grieving over the loss of his own people and culture. The white men’s respective travels are an odyssey into Karamakate’s world and he is the true protagonist of the story. Theodor, faced with a terminal illness, comes to depend upon the shaman’s knowledge of herbs in order to survive. In exchange, he agrees to help Karamakate find the remaining members of his tribe. 

Through its nonlinear structure we see imperialism's lasting effects on the rain forest and and how the rise of industry has led to loss of habitat and violence due to the rubber trade. Colonialism's deleterious legacy is at the heart of the film, expressed most tellingly in a sequence set at a Spanish mission where native children, abandoned as a result of the rubber-plantation violence and abuses, are at the mercy of a cruel priest who whips them for speaking their own language.

Embrace of the Serpent calls attention to the tremendous loss of knowledge and culture in the Amazon but does so without pandering or being didactic. The film unfolds in dreamlike passages as it takes its sinuous route toward its conclusion.