Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
Written & Directed by Ciro Guerra
The story feels familiar, well-tread territory. A visitor from the Western world ventures into the dark jungles seeking knowledge, a cure, a remedy, wealth, and fortune. A strange and mystic native guides them through this exotic land, and it either ends in triumph or tragedy, the Westerner at the forefront of the story. Filmmaker Ciro Guerra takes this framework and subverts it, turns this into the account of the native with the Westerner becoming a background supporting figure. Guerra tells of two visitors to the same native Amazonian shaman, thirty years apart, but both men are seeking the same curative plant. Through these dual points in time, the audience can witness the decay of native cultures, ravaged by the effects of interlopers on their land.
The protagonist of the movie is Karamakate, the last of his people, a reclusive shaman living completely alone. His life is first disturbed by the arrival of Manduca, a Westernized local who is the companion of Theo von Martius, a German explorer and an ethnographer stricken with some unknown ailment. Manduca was a rubber plantation slave, freed by Theo and so acts with urgency to save the man’s life. Karamakate looks at Manduca as having submitted to the white men no matter how Manduca argues otherwise. He reluctantly agrees to help, and the trio set off on a surreal and mystic odyssey down the Amazon River.
Thirty years later, Karamakate is visited by Evan, an American botanist, who says he had devoted his life to the study of plants. Karamakate is now suffering from what we might call “senior moments,” still wise but having lost much of his knowledge of the details of this land. Evan wants explicitly to find yakruna, the same shrub Theo was searching for all those years ago. The shaman agrees to help Evan and begins to piece together the route to the yakruna once they are on the river.
Karamakate is a justifiably angry man in his youth, watching his tribe and the people around him either submit the colonization or be killed by it. There’s a stop in a patch of forest watched over by a mutilated and tortured rubber plantation slave. When Karamakate overturns the buckets of collected sap in anger, the slave begs for the men to kill him before his owners find what has happened. The man is missing an arm, toes off one foot, and bears horrible scars across one side of his face.
Both expeditions encounter a Christian mission hidden away in the jungle. In earlier trip, it is run by a brutal monk that violently beats the orphans in his care for speaking what he deems “pagan languages” and listening to Karamakate’s medicinal teachings. The latter trip with Evan finds the mission devolved into cultlike madness, the orphans now adults and bowing down before a Brazilian man who has fashioned himself as the second coming of Christ. The residents of the mission have intermingled the Western Christian beliefs with fragments of their lost peoples’ way of living and Karamakate remarks that it is “the worst of both worlds.”
Guerra has made a powerful meditation on the conflict of progress and tradition, making some bold statements about the merits and problems with both. Early in the film, Theo has his compass stolen by the chief of a small tribe the group spends the night with. The German explorer is insistent; he gets the compass back and damages his relationship with the tribe in the process. He explains himself to Karamakate as they depart that he doesn’t want the clan to learn how to use the compass because then they will lose their old way of using the constellations and adopt the Western method. The shaman spits back at Theo, “Knowledge belongs to all. You do not understand that. You are just a white man.” This feels like a reversal of roles, the Western not wanting to disturb the way of life of the natives while a native showing resentment over having education kept from his people. The film is not a condemnation of the intermingling of cultures, rather an examination of when the wrong elements of an invading culture become dominant and exploitation and disrespect ensues.