White Light from the Mouth of Infinity
by Hans Morgenstern
Embrace of the Serpent
Dir. Ciro Guerra, Colombia, Oscilloscope Laboratories
Abound with lush, multilayered imagery shot in black-and-white super 35, writer-director Ciro Guerra's Academy Award-nominated third film, Embrace of the Serpent, is both journey and allegory. Serpent is the first film for not only Guerra but also Colombia to land the nomination for foreign-language film (Guerra’s first and second films, 2004's Wandering Shadows and 2009's The Wind Journeys, were also submitted to represent the nation at the Oscars), but with its low-key tone and a narrative approach that rewards the patient, it is not the sort of movie that wins Academy Awards. The film’s power emerges not just through the story, cowritten with Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, but in Guerra's mystical approach, which plays with chronology in order to stay true to the film's subjectivity. Embrace of the Serpent subverts time and space while mostly staying grounded in the primordial world of the Amazon jungle.
Embrace is told from the viewpoint of Karamakate, a shaman of Amazonia alternately played by two native non-actors—the buff, young Nilbio Torres and the rotund, elder Antonio Bolivar—and the story toggles between the early and mid twentieth century. Guerra and Vidal based their script on the journals of the German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, well known for his work with hallucinogenic plants. Both real-life explorers are given fictionalized surrogates. The bearded, spindly Jan Bijvoet plays the earlier explorer, Theo Von Martius, in search of a rare plant, the yakruna, which has incredible healing properties but causes psychedelic side effects, and which Karamakate explains is a gateway for weighty knowledge of the universe. Assisting Theo in his quest is Manduca (Yauenkü Migue, also a non-actor), a native who wears western clothes and shows too much concern for the waxing and waning health of Theo; this vexes Karamakate, who has little sympathy for the white man and fellow native who has “submitted to the whites.” Karamakate only agrees to help because Theo may know where survivors of Karamakate’s tribe, the Cohiuano, may be.
In a parallel story that unfolds forty years later, Brionne Davis plays Evan, a young botanist based on Schultes, who finds Karamakate decades after Theo’s original expedition. Though both Westerners have the best intentions, Karamakate has seen his world exploited on every level due to the arrival of Europeans in the Amazon. He has borne witness to the horrors of colonialism, from Christian missions that derange the natives, to the capitalistic greed of rubber barons responsible for decimating his tribe. It’s no wonder that the shaman barely trusts the two explorers he meets over the course of the dual narratives. Bolivar, said to be among the last of the Ocaina people, brings pathos to his interpretation of Karamakate, who seems to have grown senile, often bemoaning his failing memory as not only a loss of identity but a loss of connection to the Amazon jungle and all the knowledge it has to offer. Torres, who grew up living off the jungle, channels raw, fresh anger as the young shaman embittered by the white men, whom he sees as lesser than him, while he struggles to maintain a vital identity informed by his people’s tradition. The more studied Bijvoet and Davis just stay out of the way.
There is heart-of-darkness terror, from a scene at a mission situated along the bank of the Amazon where a monk beats the pagan savage out of the orphans he has sheltered, to a return visit, forty years later to the same mission, where a figure calling himself the messiah has gathered homicidal followers. But this is not simply a critique of colonialism. On more profound levels, the film, through Karamakate, seeks to challenge basic Western sensibilities, like the notion that knowledge is quantifiable. In what has to be the film’s most intentionally silly image, a lanky, deathly ill, and quivering Von Martius carries burdensome boxes on his back and suitcases under each arm, all of which contain his research, while the Amazon rages in the background. “Why do you whites love your things so much?” Karamakate asks, standing almost nude and healthy above the same coursing river. Theo counters that these “things” keep him bound to his people in Germany, including his wife and children, and that if he returns to civilization without physical evidence of what he has experienced no one will believe him. “You’re insane,” remarks the shaman. (This might strike the viewer as not much different from our widespread obsession today to document and share our every experience on social media—if it’s not on Facebook, did it ever happen?) Similarly, Karamakate skewers Theo for appearing as if he’s about to cry while dictating a letter to his wife. Karamakate cracks up laughing while watching Theo from the back of the canoe. “I enjoy expressing my affection to her,” Theo tells him. “And when you go back will you express your affection for me?” Karamakate says, still laughing. There is no room for sentimentality in Karamakate’s world, where he may very well be the last of his people. And like Karamakate, Embrace of the Serpent is not a film driven by sentiment. As beautiful as the film’s black-and-white images often are, they sometimes obscure the jungle. Drained of color, the Amazon becomes a severe setting whose full-color beauty is not fully realized.
Guerra establishes his alternating narrative threads by dividing the introduction of the two explorers and the younger and older Karamakate with a striking opening credits sequence. First Theo appears from between trees at the edge of the river, lying on his back in a canoe, mouth agape and eyes half open. Manduca is standing at the bow, paddling. As he approaches the shore, toward the muscular figure of Karamakate, who is bedecked in only a loin cloth, feather bands around his biceps, and a chunky quartz necklace whose central stone exudes a subtle spectral sheen, Manduca repeats the names of tribes of the region: “Yukuna? Tukano? Wanano?” With some reticence, Karamakate agrees to take care of Theo. Not long after he mixes a potion for Theo, he glances out to the water, and the camera follows his gaze toward the river for one of the film’s most arresting images: an anaconda giving live birth to a tangle of baby snakes. The opening credits roll over shots of the snake consuming the stillborn, the metaphor clueing the viewer in that this will be a narrative driven by not just life and death but also rebirth and time.
From the film’s title, the director cuts to a detail of a vast mural of swirling and snaking primal images. As the camera slowly pulls out, the frame reveals the stocky, elder Karamakate carving what appears to be a jaguar into a rock face. It is at this point that Evan now enters Karamakate’s life by the same means as Theo did: via canoe, through trees in the water. This time there is no Manduca character, but an explorer seemingly more evolved, learned and healthier. It is Evan who asks Karamakate what tribe he identifies with. “Tukano? Andoke? Karihona?” Karamakate acts like he has seen a ghost when the bearded younger explorer paddles toward him in a canoe. Startled but frozen, he drops his carving tool into the water. Though his body is older, Karamakate still wears the same outfit (loincloth, feather bands, quartz necklace). Evan carries Theo’s book and also says he is in search of the yakruna. For Karamakate, Evan carries the same spirit as Theo, and is therefore the same man.
Meanwhile, Karamakate becomes a man split in two, a chullachaqui, to use his own term. According to Amazon legend, every man has a hollowed out twin roaming the jungle, ready to deceive those who cross its path. As an angry young shaman, Karamakate was quick to accuse those he meets as having two sides, in other words untrustworthy liars. Now, in his advanced age and waning knowledge of how to make some potions or even find the yakruna, Karamakate must confront a loss of his own self and come to terms with the fact that he may be his very own chullachaqui. His loss of connection to the jungle stands in opposition to the film’s graceful flow between narratives, which are woven together via delicately natural camera movements. In one astonishingly beautiful transition, Guerra moves back and forth to characters in different periods without cutting. As the three men from the earlier time period canoe from the right of the screen to the left, and turn away from the camera, the tracking shot dips down to the still waters of the Amazon, skimming over the river’s becalmed surface only to crane up again and meet the characters from forty years on, canoeing from the opposite direction. The one unnatural aesthetic touch is the musical score by Nascuy Linares that first sounds like a field recording of entranced, mellowed Indians chanting, but soon gets drowned out by contemporary instruments, including a sparingly plucked electric guitar and a whirring electronic drone that throbs and echoes metallically. It’s an otherworldly contrast that suits the film’s explorations of the visible and invisible.
It is the elder Karamakate who finally shares yakruna with Evan. Clouds roll up a mountain, nature’s curtain for the big unveiling of their destination; it’s a sequence that departs in tone from the rest of the film, including an encounter with vivid, abstract color. "I wasn’t meant to teach my people,” Karamakate finally concedes, accepting the loss of his tribe. “I was meant to teach you.” For the first time, Karamakate looks directly at the camera. In a puff, the film breaks from expectation, further demolishing time and space, switching to Evan’s internal perspective and bringing to mind Kubrick’s Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The path to infinity comes via the sudden cut to a young Karamakate, who stands quietly on the mountaintop with his eyes shut. When he opens his eyes and mouth, white light pours fourth, kicking off an aerial sequence over the jungles of the Amazon with the camera throttling forward, first in an indistinguishable blur that gradually slows after a series of cuts to further heights, as the perspective of the camera moves higher and higher above ground, brush, trees, river, and ultimately earth. The sequence begins in silence, but soon the music of Linares, composed of spare, growling drones, like a more foreboding version of Ligeti’s “Atmospheres,” fades in. From the air, we see the Amazon in all its serpentine glory as it gives way to galaxies within galaxies in space. The drone on the soundtrack becomes the cyclical pulsing of a human embryo’s heart recorded through ultrasound, which gradually slows down, like the final turns of a helicopter blade. Color is introduced for the film’s most abstract images, based on indigenous carvings whose symmetrical curves seem drawn out in thick, dark colors that pulse with a primordial essence existing somewhere beyond space.
These new patterns imply layers upon layers of greater universes. It’s the visualization of a quote attributed to Theo that opens the film and is lifted from the writings of Koch Grünberg about the Amazon, "I find it impossible to describe in words its beauty and splendor." It may be overly ambitious of Guerra to visualize this essence, but everything leading up to this moment makes it feel earned and cathartic. But he isn’t done. Guerra doesn’t forget to return to earth for a final moment of transcendence. Embrace of the Serpent may be about the havoc wreaked on the Amazon basin—in terms of industry, currency, religion—due to European meddling, but the film haunts long after it ends because it also acknowledges the intense beauty that remains.