Embrace of the Serpent (5 stars)

Embrace of the Serpent

Ciro Guerra’s Oscar-nominated film is a majestic, thought-provoking look at colonialism

The guilt-stained legacy of colonialism comes into sharp focus in Embrace of the Serpent, a film as gorgeous-looking as it is heartrending. There are echoes of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God in this Oscar-nominated effort from Colombian director Ciro Guerra, as he uses true stories to chart the varying degrees of folly in two parallel journeys that venture deep into the Amazon.

David Gallego’s stunning black-and-white cinematography really does paint in light, as he finds the textures and shadings of the jungle and its inhabitants. In 1909, it is German explorer Theo (Jan Bijvoet) who persuades young shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) to accompany him on the search for the yakruna, a rare flower that could cure him of a mysterious illness. Karamakate is thought to be the last of his tribe and is only persuaded to undertake the journey by the promise of discovering other survivors. In 1940, American explorer Evans (Brionne Davis) hires the older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvado Yangiama) to undertake his own search for the flower.

Both of the journeys reveal the lasting impact of western colonial intrusion on the landscape, on the resources of the jungles and rivers, and on the indigenous culture. It is a hauntingly poetic testimony to unthinking exploitation and to the arrogance of first world countries righteous in the belief that their actions are saving and civilising the savage natives. The most telling sequence comes at a Catholic mission where a sadistic Spanish priest (Luigi Sciamanna) exerts total control over the lives of orphan children, who are forbidden from speaking their native languages.

Majestic and thought-provoking, Embrace of the Serpent presents a vivid vision of a lost world, and is touching in its closing dedication to ‘peoples whose song we will never know.’

Selected release from Fri 10 Jun.

Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)

  • 2015
  • Colombia / Venezuela / Argentina
  • 2h 5min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Ciro Guerra
  • Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar
  • UK release: 10 June 2016

The story of the relationship between Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his people, and two scientists who work together over the course of 40 years to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant.