Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent is based on the diaries, written approximately thirty years apart, by German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American ethno-botanist Richard Evans Schultes. Jan Bijvoet is cast as the German Theo and Brionne Davis as the American Evan. Guerra inter-cuts the story of the two men in different time periods beginning in 1909 and later in 1940.
Both explorers meet up with Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman, the last survivor of the Cohiuano, an Amazonian tribe killed off by the rubber barons. Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar are excellent as the Young and Old Karamakate respectively, who reluctantly guide the intrepid explorers in their quest to find a sacred plant, Yakrana.
When we first meet Theo, he appears to be dying of malaria and the Young Karamakate wants nothing to do with him as he views all whites with suspicion, as he holds them responsible for both the annihilation of his people and destruction of his culture. But when Theo claims he’s met surviving members of his tribe, Karamakate agrees first to nurse Theo back to health (he blows a medicinal preparation into his nostrils)—he then takes the explorer and his trusty guide, Manduca, up the Amazon River in a canoe, in search of the elusive Yakrana.
Along the way they encounter a Catholic school of young native boys, run by a sadistic priest who flogs the children whenever he suspects they may be falling back into their “pagan” ways. Later, when the Older Karamakate takes Evan on his journey, they encounter a cult run by a Jim Jones-like character who believes he’s the Son of God. Karamakate heals the crazed man’s wife who then invites his followers to consume his flesh.
Shot in exquisite black and white, Embrace of the Serpent reminds us of the destructive power of “civilisation” and its deleterious effect on indigenous cultures. The once proud Karamakate is reduced to a sad figure as he bemoans his inability to no longer communicate with the natural world.
While most of Embrace of the Serpent is riveting, Guerra boxes himself in with an unsatisfying ending. When Evan finally finds the healing plant, there is a rather trite scene suggesting man’s consciousness merging with the infinite. Somehow the power of hallucinogenic plants is reduced to a rather typical scene of a 60s psychedelic acid trip. The value of hallucinogenic plants is much more cogently explained in the writings of Carlos Castaneda, which assuredly should be read as a companion piece to this fairly absorbing film.