From Colombian director Ciro Guerra comes this remarkable film about the relationship between Amazonian shaman Karamakate and two explorers, four decades apart. The “serpent” of the title is the Amazon River, which winds through the deepest jungle of the north-west Amazon.
Early in the 20th century, German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), encounters the young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), who administers life-saving herbal medicine to the ill scientist. Forty years on, American ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schulte (Brionne Davis) seeks him out in search of yakruna, a powerful plant capable of teaching people how to dream.
The now-aged Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar Salvador) is a shell of a man with no memories, no emotion: a “chullachaqui”. Yakruna helps him remember the traumatic events that his mind has suppressed.
In his dreams, he sees the brutal extermination of his people by avaricious strangers come to exploit the rubber from the trees of the Amazonian jungle. He also vividly recalls the frenzied corporal abuse inflicted upon children by Christian missionaries.
Guerra and co-writer Jacques Toulemonde have based their screenplay on the journals of the two scientists. Embrace of the Serpent, the first fiction feature film to be shot in the Colombian Amazon in 30 years, was shot in monochrome, which makes it resemble old footage. Much of the dialogue is in the dialect of the Ocaina-Huitoto people, which adds to the illusion that we are watching a documentary about the evils wrought by commercial greed and religious zealotry.