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Review: Embrace of the Serpent

A man stands, nearly naked, with spear in hand, staring into the sparkling water of the river. The sparkle of the water gives way to a canoe, slowly edging its way into sight and revealing a native man and a white man, both dressed in white man's clothing.

What a beautiful way to open a story that addresses the strong hand of the White Man's influence on Amazonian culture. Ciro Guerra's EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT, based on the journals of German scientist Theodor Koch-Grunberg, follows Karamakate (whose young and old self is played by Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar), the last survivor of his tribe, who guides Theo (Jan Bivjoet) and an American scientist, Evan (Brionne Davis), through the Amazon respectively. Both scientists are after the elusive, sacred healing plant -- the fictional yakruna -- though their motives are very different: while Theo seeks it as the remedy to his own illness, Evan is out to make a profit from it, just as the Colombians have ravaged the land to profit from the rubber trees.

The disparity between Theo and Evan, and the way that Karamakate interacts with each of them, is fascinating on its own, but the film boasts more intricacies than just the relations of the Western world with its assumed property -- scenario after scenario portrays the struggle to sustain Amazonian culture as the world around it begins to slowly cave inward. One scenario shows an accidental breech in what sci-fi fans know as the "prime directive" (interference with the development of a culture); another reveals a religious sect gone awry. Karamakate adds a fascinating layer of complexity to the story with his own personal journey, desperately trying to hold onto the ways of his lost tribe -- especially as his memory begins to slip away and he becomes a "chullachagi".

Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT is a rarity in its delicate treatment of the content. This is a must-see -- now playing at the Midtown Cinema!

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