Embrace of the Serpent dir. Ciro Guerra

Ciro Guerra’s El abrazo de la serpiente/Embrace of the Serpent takes you on a journey into the deep Colombian Amazon, in principle with two white explorers who are in search for the sacred, psychedelic yakruna plant. Though inspired by the journals written by real-life explorers Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes, Guerra’s approach to the story of the ‘encounter’ is less one of white explorers or adventurers than that of the native Americans, whose voices we rarely hear.
Santiago Oyarzabal

One of the immediate effects of this change in point of view is that the Amazonia is no longer that exuberant, threatening, wild jungle, but a space many different peoples inhabit physically and meta-physically taking from it what they need, and paying their tribute through their rituals. Shot in black and white, the film works as an exploration of the spiritual belief system of native peoples such as the Tukano and the Yukuna without shying away from the irreparable damage done in the name of civilization and progress.

Within a period of 40 years in the early 20th centuries, German explorer and scientist Theodor (Jan Bijvoet) and American botanist Evans (Brionne Davis) intern themselves into the Amazonia in search for the yakruna flower, the first with the hope to cure himself, while the latter with more ambiguous reasons. Although yakruna is a fictional plant, its effects, and those of the caapi drink seem a clear reference to ayahuasca, the traditional brew used as a medicine and in spiritual ceremonies in parts of Latin America. Banisteriopsis caapi is in fact a vine used in the preparation of ayahuasca.

The film will cut between these parallel expeditions in search of yakruna and the difficult relations the two white men establish with indigenous shaman Karamakate, a solitary man who we see in two versions, as a young man (performed by Nilbio Torres) and an older man (Antonio Bolívar) who has forgotten the meaning of his traditions to turn into chullachaqui, or someone who appears to be the same but has lost all substance and is completely hollow inside.

During their journeys along the river both expeditions come across some of the effects produced by attempts to impose ‘civilisation’ in America and to incorporate the ‘products’ of the Amazonia to global trade routes. The destruction and exploitation inflicted by rubber barons and the rubber wars, and a Spanish mission led by a sadistic priest that years later has turned into something like a surreal Apocalypse Now moment, represent man’s descent to madness and evil.

Ciro Guerra (b. 1981) takes several risks in El abrazo de la serpiente, including a moment full-blown of colour and his courage has been rewarded with several important nominations and awards. The film was nominated to the Oscar Prize as Best Foreign Language Film and it received in Cannes the CICAE Art Cinema Award, as well as several other prizes around the world.

The Embrace of the Serpent is out in the UK this Friday (embraceoftheserpent.co.uk)

Embrace Of The Serpent Trailer - Official UK Trailer