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Embrace of the Serpent


  1. Directed by: Ciro Guerra
  2. Produced by:
  3. Written by: Ciro Guerra
    Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
    Theodor Koch-Grünberg
    Richard Evans Schultes
  4. Music by: Nascuy Linares
  5. Cinematography by: David Gallego
  6. Editing by: Etienne Boussac
  7. Release Date: 2015
  8. Running Time: 125 min
  9. Language: Multiple

Clips

  1. A&F Discussion Thread
  2. IMDb.com
  3. Wikipedia
  4. Netflix

The third feature by Colombian director Ciro Guerra, Embrace of the Serpent calls to mind Roland Joffe’s The Mission, with its story of colonial exploitation of South American tribes.  Its brink of insanity, hallucinatory vividness is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

But Embrace of the Serpent is marvelous on its own terms.  Loosely inspired by the journals of two scientists’ rainforest explorations, Guerra’s film shifts back and forth in time between the adventures of German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (Theo) in 1909 and Boston botanist Richard Evans Schultes (Evan) in 1940.  The bridge across the decades is the shaman Karamakate, the last survivor of the Cohiuano tribe, who aids each scientist in his river travels by dugout canoe.

Each of these individuals is an interesting character study.  With his straw hat and scraggly beard, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) resembles Vincent van Gogh in countenance.  In his encounters with tribes along the river, it’s evident that Theo loves and respects these people.  His bond with his Colombian travel companion Manduca also reveals his tenderness.

By contrast, Evan (Brionne Davis) is more sphinxlike in his motivations.  A colder pragmatist, it’s unclear whether material gain or scientific curiosity drives his explorations.  The shaman Karamakate discerns this conflict, telling Evan that there are two men warring inside of him.

Director Ciro Guerra smartly chose to have two actors portray Karamakate.  When Theo meets him, young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) stands tall, with nothing but muscle on his magnificent frame.  Scornful of the white man’s presence in the jungle, the shaman requires some persuading by Manduca to tend to the febrile and gravely ill Theo.

By 1940, Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) is soft in body and mind.  His flesh now sags, and he laments his fading memory.  Where he perceives a dual personality in Evan, he contrastingly bemoans his transformation into an empty shell, a ghostly chullachaqui.  When the aged shaman agrees to accompany Evan in a search for the trance-inducing yakruna flower, he clearly wants to aid his own recall as much as help the botanist.

It is to the film’s credit that, for all of his wisdom, Karamakate is far too complex to be yet another stereotypical noble savage.  Isolation and trauma have worn away most of his kindness, leaving behind sharp edges and bitterness.

In the dual timelines of Embrace of the Serpent, the shaman and scientists encounter horrifying signs of colonialization, depicted with breathtaking power.  The depredations of the rubber plantation barons show up most evidently in the mutilated slaves, who in turn scar the rubber trees to drain their sap.  Tiny wooden crosses scattered through the jungle attest to the humans sacrificed to the god of commerce.

The crosses signify another colonial presence.  Further downriver, Theo, Manduca, and Karamakate encounter a Catholic mission that takes in child orphans of the rubber trade.  The deranged Capuchin monk there forbids his charges to speak their native “pagan” language and beats them for showing interest in Karamakate’s plant knowledge.  For his part, the shaman ridicules the monk for propagating a tale about eating the bodies of their gods.

In a seamless shift to 1940, Evan and Karamakate’s return to this same site is the most surreal interlude of the film.  In the shaman’s words, the Indians still there have grotesquely melded together the worst of two cultures.

For the overall power of Embrace of the Serpent, much praise is due David Gallego’s black and white cinematography.  Everything contrasts and stands out more vividly across the black/gray/white continuum:  the scars on Manduca’s back (from beatings by his former masters), the fire-cast night shadows in the jungle, the dark mounds of the Cerros de Mavicure rising from the wetlands.  Director and cinematographer both made excellent use of their eight weeks filming in the Amazonia region of Colombia.

There are occasional glimpses of wildlife, most significantly the jaguar and anaconda of local mythology.  And the importance of preserving myths and cultural history is the strand that winds river-like across both timelines of Embrace of the Serpent. 

In one touching scene, Evan plays Haydn’s Creation on the phonograph he’s lugged through the jungle.  Karamakate exhorts Evan to hold onto his home’s origin myth, just as he tells him to pass along his people’s myth of their land’s creation by the anaconda god.  “Don’t let our song fade away,” the shaman beseeches the scientist.

- Andrew Spitznas, chief writer/editor at Secular Cinephile


  1. Directed by: Ciro Guerra
  2. Produced by:
  3. Written by: Ciro Guerra
    Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
    Theodor Koch-Grünberg
    Richard Evans Schultes
  4. Music by: Nascuy Linares
  5. Cinematography by: David Gallego
  6. Editing by: Etienne Boussac
  7. Release Date: 2015
  8. Running Time: 125 min
  9. Language: Multiple

Clips

  1. A&F Discussion Thread
  2. IMDb.com
  3. Wikipedia
  4. Netflix

The third feature by Colombian director Ciro Guerra, Embrace of the Serpent calls to mind Roland Joffe’s The Mission, with its story of colonial exploitation of South American tribes.  Its brink of insanity, hallucinatory vividness is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

But Embrace of the Serpent is marvelous on its own terms.  Loosely inspired by the journals of two scientists’ rainforest explorations, Guerra’s film shifts back and forth in time between the adventures of German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (Theo) in 1909 and Boston botanist Richard Evans Schultes (Evan) in 1940.  The bridge across the decades is the shaman Karamakate, the last survivor of the Cohiuano tribe, who aids each scientist in his river travels by dugout canoe.

Each of these individuals is an interesting character study.  With his straw hat and scraggly beard, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) resembles Vincent van Gogh in countenance.  In his encounters with tribes along the river, it’s evident that Theo loves and respects these people.  His bond with his Colombian travel companion Manduca also reveals his tenderness.

By contrast, Evan (Brionne Davis) is more sphinxlike in his motivations.  A colder pragmatist, it’s unclear whether material gain or scientific curiosity drives his explorations.  The shaman Karamakate discerns this conflict, telling Evan that there are two men warring inside of him.

Director Ciro Guerra smartly chose to have two actors portray Karamakate.  When Theo meets him, young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) stands tall, with nothing but muscle on his magnificent frame.  Scornful of the white man’s presence in the jungle, the shaman requires some persuading by Manduca to tend to the febrile and gravely ill Theo.

By 1940, Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) is soft in body and mind.  His flesh now sags, and he laments his fading memory.  Where he perceives a dual personality in Evan, he contrastingly bemoans his transformation into an empty shell, a ghostly chullachaqui.  When the aged shaman agrees to accompany Evan in a search for the trance-inducing yakruna flower, he clearly wants to aid his own recall as much as help the botanist.

It is to the film’s credit that, for all of his wisdom, Karamakate is far too complex to be yet another stereotypical noble savage.  Isolation and trauma have worn away most of his kindness, leaving behind sharp edges and bitterness.

In the dual timelines of Embrace of the Serpent, the shaman and scientists encounter horrifying signs of colonialization, depicted with breathtaking power.  The depredations of the rubber plantation barons show up most evidently in the mutilated slaves, who in turn scar the rubber trees to drain their sap.  Tiny wooden crosses scattered through the jungle attest to the humans sacrificed to the god of commerce.

The crosses signify another colonial presence.  Further downriver, Theo, Manduca, and Karamakate encounter a Catholic mission that takes in child orphans of the rubber trade.  The deranged Capuchin monk there forbids his charges to speak their native “pagan” language and beats them for showing interest in Karamakate’s plant knowledge.  For his part, the shaman ridicules the monk for propagating a tale about eating the bodies of their gods.

In a seamless shift to 1940, Evan and Karamakate’s return to this same site is the most surreal interlude of the film.  In the shaman’s words, the Indians still there have grotesquely melded together the worst of two cultures.

For the overall power of Embrace of the Serpent, much praise is due David Gallego’s black and white cinematography.  Everything contrasts and stands out more vividly across the black/gray/white continuum:  the scars on Manduca’s back (from beatings by his former masters), the fire-cast night shadows in the jungle, the dark mounds of the Cerros de Mavicure rising from the wetlands.  Director and cinematographer both made excellent use of their eight weeks filming in the Amazonia region of Colombia.

There are occasional glimpses of wildlife, most significantly the jaguar and anaconda of local mythology.  And the importance of preserving myths and cultural history is the strand that winds river-like across both timelines of Embrace of the Serpent. 

In one touching scene, Evan plays Haydn’s Creation on the phonograph he’s lugged through the jungle.  Karamakate exhorts Evan to hold onto his home’s origin myth, just as he tells him to pass along his people’s myth of their land’s creation by the anaconda god.  “Don’t let our song fade away,” the shaman beseeches the scientist.

- Andrew Spitznas, chief writer/editor at Secular Cinephile

The third feature by Colombian director Ciro Guerra, Embrace of the Serpent calls to mind Roland Joffe’s The Mission, with its story of colonial exploitation of South American tribes.  Its brink of insanity, hallucinatory vividness is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

But Embrace of the Serpent is marvelous on its own terms.  Loosely inspired by the journals of two scientists’ rainforest explorations, Guerra’s film shifts back and forth in time between the adventures of German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (Theo) in 1909 and Boston botanist Richard Evans Schultes (Evan) in 1940.  The bridge across the decades is the shaman Karamakate, the last survivor of the Cohiuano tribe, who aids each scientist in his river travels by dugout canoe.

Each of these individuals is an interesting character study.  With his straw hat and scraggly beard, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) resembles Vincent van Gogh in countenance.  In his encounters with tribes along the river, it’s evident that Theo loves and respects these people.  His bond with his Colombian travel companion Manduca also reveals his tenderness.

By contrast, Evan (Brionne Davis) is more sphinxlike in his motivations.  A colder pragmatist, it’s unclear whether material gain or scientific curiosity drives his explorations.  The shaman Karamakate discerns this conflict, telling Evan that there are two men warring inside of him.

Director Ciro Guerra smartly chose to have two actors portray Karamakate.  When Theo meets him, young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) stands tall, with nothing but muscle on his magnificent frame.  Scornful of the white man’s presence in the jungle, the shaman requires some persuading by Manduca to tend to the febrile and gravely ill Theo.

By 1940, Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) is soft in body and mind.  His flesh now sags, and he laments his fading memory.  Where he perceives a dual personality in Evan, he contrastingly bemoans his transformation into an empty shell, a ghostly chullachaqui.  When the aged shaman agrees to accompany Evan in a search for the trance-inducing yakruna flower, he clearly wants to aid his own recall as much as help the botanist.

It is to the film’s credit that, for all of his wisdom, Karamakate is far too complex to be yet another stereotypical noble savage.  Isolation and trauma have worn away most of his kindness, leaving behind sharp edges and bitterness.

In the dual timelines of Embrace of the Serpent, the shaman and scientists encounter horrifying signs of colonialization, depicted with breathtaking power.  The depredations of the rubber plantation barons show up most evidently in the mutilated slaves, who in turn scar the rubber trees to drain their sap.  Tiny wooden crosses scattered through the jungle attest to the humans sacrificed to the god of commerce.

The crosses signify another colonial presence.  Further downriver, Theo, Manduca, and Karamakate encounter a Catholic mission that takes in child orphans of the rubber trade.  The deranged Capuchin monk there forbids his charges to speak their native “pagan” language and beats them for showing interest in Karamakate’s plant knowledge.  For his part, the shaman ridicules the monk for propagating a tale about eating the bodies of their gods.

In a seamless shift to 1940, Evan and Karamakate’s return to this same site is the most surreal interlude of the film.  In the shaman’s words, the Indians still there have grotesquely melded together the worst of two cultures.

For the overall power of Embrace of the Serpent, much praise is due David Gallego’s black and white cinematography.  Everything contrasts and stands out more vividly across the black/gray/white continuum:  the scars on Manduca’s back (from beatings by his former masters), the fire-cast night shadows in the jungle, the dark mounds of the Cerros de Mavicure rising from the wetlands.  Director and cinematographer both made excellent use of their eight weeks filming in the Amazonia region of Colombia.

There are occasional glimpses of wildlife, most significantly the jaguar and anaconda of local mythology.  And the importance of preserving myths and cultural history is the strand that winds river-like across both timelines of Embrace of the Serpent. 

In one touching scene, Evan plays Haydn’s Creation on the phonograph he’s lugged through the jungle.  Karamakate exhorts Evan to hold onto his home’s origin myth, just as he tells him to pass along his people’s myth of their land’s creation by the anaconda god.  “Don’t let our song fade away,” the shaman beseeches the scientist.

- Andrew Spitznas, chief writer/editor at Secular Cinephile


  1. Directed by: Ciro Guerra
  2. Produced by:
  3. Written by: Ciro Guerra
    Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
    Theodor Koch-Grünberg
    Richard Evans Schultes
  4. Music by: Nascuy Linares
  5. Cinematography by: David Gallego
  6. Editing by: Etienne Boussac
  7. Release Date: 2015
  8. Running Time: 125 min
  9. Language: Multiple

Clips

  1. A&F Discussion Thread
  2. IMDb.com
  3. Wikipedia
  4. Netflix
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