There are films, and then there are films. I’m sure I’m not the first to say this, but when you see movie after movie after movie, often non-stop, and then something like Embrace of the Serpent reveals itself, your eyes literally fly open. You feel as if though somehow, the fabric of the screen had somehow trickled away into dust and disclosed another world, time and place, a beckoning, living paradise drenched in wonders, adventure, and mysteries just waiting to be discovered.
Split into two timeframes — 1909 and 1940 –, Embrace of the Serpent is the story of Karamakate, the last surviving member of his own tribe, living in solitude in the Vaupes, deep in the heart of Colombia.
The first time period, 1909, has Karamakate (Nilbio Torres, a commanding, warrior presence) coming upon Theo (Jan Bijvoet), an explorer whose fallen sick, and his partner, the Westernized indian Manduca (Yauenku Migue) who asks Karamakate for help. Karamakate expresses an open distrust for Theo — after all, he is a Blanco, a white man, and they’ve been responsible for decimating his tribe. Theo expresses that he’s only searching for the yakruna, and that he can help Karamakate find remaining members of his tribe along the way.
A gradual, yet sometimes volatile relationship develops between the three men as they canoe through the river. On their way to the fabled yakruna, they come across a rubber worker who begs Manduca for death, poisonous food that Theo in his ignorance ingests, and a tribe whose leader steals Theo’s compass. Upon discovering the act, his goodbye sours; he needs the compass, but also states that these people will lose their own tradition of using the sky for location. Karamakate counters, justifiably, that knowledge shouldn’t be for a chosen few.
One of the more telling encounters is at a mission where a monk has seemingly converted young boys into the ways of the Spanish. At first fearful that the three men will raid his place, he accepts their visit. Here is where a sense of religious hypocrisy comes into the picture: later on, the men realize the monk has forbidden the boys speak their native language and whips one of them savagely. This visit will repeat itself in a moment straight out of a cult movie, when in 1940 an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) and another explorer, Evan (Brionne Davis), come upon the now grown men from that mission, living under the vicious thumb of a man who believes himself to be the Christ and who’s clearly insane. It’s a perversion of the previous scene and a symbolic indication of how south things went after the Spanish conquered the new world. In eradicating most of the native culture (deemed heretic and barbaric), they plunged the remaining people into an even more savage reality, as dark as the Dark Ages, bordering on religious frenzy.
And in the midst, the Maguffin of the story, the elusive yakruna, the rare pearl beckoning both Theo and Evan, both with Karamakate as a guide: withholding and willing to destroy information to preserve something pristine, but a little more giving the second time around. Perhaps the zeal of youth is to blame; who wouldn’t protect the secrets of his own civilization before allowing it to be corrupted by a society determined on imposing its stamp and stamping everything else out?
Of course, the older Karamakate has mellowed, it seems, and can now only dispense knowledge where in the past, he would have kept it for himself. Perhaps that is all he can aspire to. Embrace of the Serpent is a fascinating epic like no other, it’s its own Apocalypse Now, demonstrating the heavy load that being the sole survivor of one’s own people it can be.