This remarkable film, set in Amazonian Colombia in the early 20th century, achieves what so many fail to — it transports you not only to another time and place, but to a different mind-set and approach to storytelling.
It is at once dreamlike as the shaman Karamakate leads his western travellers down the river in search of a hallucinogenic plant, but also political and angry in its depiction of colonialism and the social and environmental destruction it brings.
Two journeys, 40 years apart, form the basis of the story. Circa 1907 Theo, a German anthropologist, has fallen ill in the jungle and has heard that a sacred plant, yakruna, might be his only hope. Karamakate is the young shaman Theo
needs to lead him to it.
Karamakate believes he is the last survivor of his tribe, having seen his village destroyed years before. He lives alone, practising his skills and observing the rites of his culture but with no one to heal. He agrees to help Theo when he
hears that there may be a few members of his group left.
Decades later the old Karamakate is alone again and has forgotten much of his knowledge. When an American botanist, Evan, arrives asking for his help to find the same plant, it seems to provide Karamakate with a chance to regain
himself and complete the task he had begun with Theo.
The two journeys interweave and become one, so that the effect is of gaining a simultaneous understanding of the effects of colonialism through time.
The film is like Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness or Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, but with the point of view reversed. In Heart of Darkness the western traveller cannot comprehend the “dark” jungle or the ways of the people he finds there — he can barely recognise them as human at all.
Here, through Karamakate’s eyes, the ways of the jungle are rational — and bathed in crystal clear light with the stunning black and white photography.
Karamakate follows various “prohibitions” which allow him to live in harmony with his environment. For example, he tells his companion they must not eat fish until the rains come. Later Theo grabs a fish from the river and bites into it, to Karamakate’s rage. “But the river is full of fish — we’ll never use them all up!” Theo shouts.
They come across a Catholic mission, where a Spanish priest beats boys into submission and bans them from using their own names and language. There is a horrible irony in the church proclaiming it has saved the “savages” from “cannibalism and ignorance”, while inducing them to eat the body and blood of Christ every Sunday. In the later timeline we see the grotesque results of this social experiment.
Embrace of the Serpent is a fictionalised version of real events and people. It has a truth to its depiction of the rubber barons’ treatment of the locals, and the wars breaking out between the Spanish ruled states in the region.
But the film is infused with symbolism and a dreamlike logic which lifts it above simple narrative history. It is an unmissable experience.