The destruction of the Amazon rain forest is one of the great tragedies of our time. It’s not just an environmental tragedy, but a human tragedy as well. Ciro Guerra’s film, Embrace of the Serpent, is a fierce condemnation of what European colonialism has done to the Amazon Indians.
The film has two stories running parallel. In 1909, a German ethnologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) enlists the help of a shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) in finding a rare medicinal plant called yakruna. Thirty years later, the American botanist, Evan (Brionne Davis) gets an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) to help him look for the same plant. Karamakate is the last surviving member of his people. He has a deep distrust of whites, yet in each case he reluctantly agrees to help a stranger.
Embrace of the Serpent reminds one of Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, in the ways it contrasts the values of a primitive hunter-gatherer with those modern people. Karamkate complains about the wastefulness of whites and about their attachment to “things”. This film also criticizes the way in which the knowledge of indigenous peoples of the Amazon, including their knowledge of medicinal plants, has been destroyed.
It is also critical of the influence of the Catholic church in the region. In one scene Theo and Karamakate come across a mission run by a Capuchin friar. He forbids the children there from speaking their native language, and he whips them when they disobey him. Years later, Evan and Karamakate find this same mission. It is now the site of a religious cult led by a white man who claims to be Jesus. The suppression of native culture has allowed a perverted existence to take its place.
Embrace of the Serpent is a great film.