Karamakate, the protagonist, an Amazonian Shaman, is the last survivor of his people and is acquainted with two separate scientists over the course of three decades: firstly Theo played by Jan Bijoet, followed by Brionne Davis, who plays Evan - both are in search of the Yakruna plant, a sacred healing plant.
Director Ciro Guerra uncovers the unheard voices belonging to the indigenous Amazonian people, who were cruelly isolated from their villages, and vigorously tortured into slavery and forced into Christianity. Tribes of Native Americans were rounded up to tap rubber out of trees, forbidden from using their native tongue and killed for endorsing in any cultural activities. The film begins at the start of the early twentieth century, and encapsulates how as time progressed, sadly so did Spanish colonialism.
Through the latter half of the century, the devastating effects of this invasion are made visible; an Amazonian amputee pleads for death whilst persisting to collect rubber despite his desperate condition, and Karamakate visits the same village he saw thirty years earlier, to discover it has been apprehended by Christian doctrine - a Spanish 'Jesus' dictator sits on a throne, ordering native Indians to be whipped into Christian belief or killed otherwise. Guerra skilfully delivers Columbian light amidst the monstrosity, inviting us to delve into the ethereal tone prevalent throughout, despite such destruction.
To deflect pain and subvert our perceptions, frequent and hilarious jibes feature throughout, as Karamakate persistently belittles the white man. The protagonist's first utterance towards Theo in the opening scene is “Go away”. Not only does this portray his cultural hatred towards the white man from the offset, but it makes his reluctance towards Theo more entertaining, as he tolerates his presence whilst persistently teasing and bursting with laughter at his expense. Whether it is mocking his rowing technique or laughing aside fellow natives during Theo's original tribal dance rendition, the portrayal of role reversal alongside the juxtaposition of cultures is innovative - the clueless white man being controlled and ridiculed by the insulting Native American, during a time of white empowerment, is refreshing and pleasing to watch.
The 'manly' qualities pertaining to Theo and Karamakate are strikingly oxymoronic; Theo represents the greedy, materialistic, fire-armed nature of the white man, and Karamakate embodies the stripped-down, innate, honest nature instilled in him through generations of indigenous upbringing. To observe such differing species of man swap roles in society, Theo nothing but a fully-clothed white “ant”, completely submissive and dependent on Karamakate, last survivor of his people by result of the white man's destructive culture, is powerful and poignant, and forces the viewer to reflect and loathe the materialistic world that we all endorse, and to envy the heart-warming authentic qualities and simplistic lifestyle of the Amazonian people.
By result of Theo's inability to rid himself of his rapacious lifestyle, portrayed through his refusal to leave his prized compass possession to the native American people, and his reluctance to drop his heavy trunks out of the canoe boat into the water, he is unable to be free and “embrace the serpent”. Theo's failure to become enlightened, is represented through his physical repellence to caapi, (the liquid transcendence which he regurgitates) and his hazy mentality which only worsens throughout and eventually leads to death.
The notion of examining selfhood, relating to consciousness, freedom, nothingness and authenticity is the purpose of “embracing the serpent”. And it is this innate philosophic way of life, which Karamakate still holds onto through the ongoing decades, although masked by his deceiving demeanour he withholds towards Evan:“I don't remember”, Karamakate discovers his purpose of being the last survivor of his people through Evan, to teach: “maybe i'm not a chullachaqui anymore”. No longer must he exist as a lost Shaman or possess hatred towards the white man, Karamakate discovers that he must show Evan how to self transcend by embracing the serpent, his ancestry, and how to truly be rid of non-spiritual selfish desires.
Controversy looms over Guerra's choice of filming in black and white; this is ironic in itself, as once again the 'ignorant white man' speculates on the trivial, rather than focusing on what is significant. It artistically illuminates the ethnic differences of the opposing cultures whilst depicting the cultural barrier that still divides the two races today. It also adds authenticity, as it reflects the time of the early twentieth century during the expansion of the Spanish empire in South America, and with Guerra using a natural setting, actors, and 'real' history, (taken from legitimate diaries belonging to actual scientists), then it only seems natural to film in black and white; filming in colour would not have been an accurate reflection of the time it took place. Additionally, it would also have taken emphasis away from Karamakate, the indigenous people, the history, and the messages being portrayed, and so it prevents the viewer from being engrossed in colourful distraction; the film being fluorescent enough in substance.
The use of metaphor and symbolism throughout adds fuel to the dreamy ambience of the film. From analysing the introductory scene of the flickering snakes, one is able to conjure further interpretations from the metaphorical imagery present throughout, particularly through the allegory of the serpent. Is the serpent a native symbol belonging to the deeply spiritual people, representing enlightenment, healing, life and rebirth? Is 'embracing the serpent' to embrace the physical form of a spirit helper of which guides one to discovering oneself? Or is the serpent a biblical reference, the indigenous people being Adam and Eve, and similar to how the serpent deceives Adam and Eve, the white man deceives and exploits the South American population? This would then relate to the metaphor of the eggs that can be seen in the beginning scene, the disturbing flashing snakes and eggs, connoting how the white man took over, the Spanish empire spread - the eggs signifying the reproduction of greed and Christianity that consumed the Native American culture.
Embrace of the Serpent is an unearthly experience and for the less perceptive viewer, you literally will never witness an Amazonian row a canoe boat in black and white, whilst it rains, as beautifully, so give it a watch. This piece of filmmaking is one big subconscious drift into a visionary, sublime piece of Native American cinema and history. A glittering, emotional journey, that has you googling 'how to become vegan' and ebaying solar panels as soon as you leave – it truly is, inspiring.
Join us for the final screening tonight as part of our weekly Discover Tuesdays slot.