El abrazo de la serpiente (Original Title)
Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men…
The film involves the stories of two whites who, decades apart, employ the services
of the same shaman to locate a rare medicinal plant. (c) Oscillascope
Columbian film director/co-writer Ciro Guerra’s new film reminds me of Bruce Beresford’s 1991 film Black Robe, in that they both show the tragic results of cross cultural clash and colonialism. Mr. Guerra’s film is set in early 20th century South America rather than 17th Century North America, and it also shows the terrible costs to the environment that the coming of whites has wreaked on the Amazon basin.
The fictionalized story is based on the travel journals two men–German explorer ethnologist, Theodor Koch- Grunberg in 1909, and an American biologist, Richard Evans Schultes, in the 1940s. Both met the shaman Karamakate whom they hope would guide them to the rare medicinal plant, the Yakruna. Beginning in 1909, the film moves back and forth between the two men and their eras.
The seriously ill Theodor Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet) is traveling in a dugout canoe with his faithful friend Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos). As they approach the shore Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), armed with his long spear-like blow gun, warily watches them. Manduca asks for help for his dying friend, but the shaman, the last of his tribe, scornfully refuses, reproaching the guide for giving in to the whites and wearing their clothing. However, when Theodor says that he knows where the survivors of Karamakate’s tribe are living, the shaman changes his mind. He agrees to take them to the Yakruna on condition that they follow his orders not to disturb the jungle—no fishing and eating of meat during the journey. He brings temporary relief from Theodor’s ailment by blowing a strong compound into his nostrils.
The journey becomes one of awakening and transformation for the German, one example being their stopping at a grove where rubber trees are being tapped. In anger at the exploitation by rubber barons who have enslaved and even killed thousands of Amazonians for the sake of rubber, Karamakate knocks down the buckets, spilling their contents. There emerges an angry Indian whose arm has been amputated, one eye gouged out, and his back beaten by whites. He is so distraught that he asks them to kill him. Apparently his masters will inflict a far worse fate on him for the loss of the rubber. Unable to kill him in cold blood, Theodor and his companions hastily leave. A short time later they hear a shot ring out, revealing the fate of the wretch they left behind.
A second horror resulting from colonialism that they encounter is the Catholic mission where a white priest cares for orphans in a cruel manner. He lashes them for any infractions, including later the group to whom Karamakate speaks in an attempt to instill in them a respect for the culture and religion being destroyed by the priest and his ilk.
The second story, taking place almost forty ears later, involves the American Richard Evans Schultes. He has the earlier man’s published journal to help guide him, and he too seeks the Yakruna flower for its alleged healing properties. It is Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar Salvado Yangiama) who again is sought after as a guide. The Indian says that he cannot remember things, but agrees to accompany his visitor. As decades before with Theodor, Karamakate urges the white man to get rid of the boxes and suitcases, telling both that they are too weighed down by things. They need to learn to dream in order to see the reality around them. Spying an old photograph that the German had taken of him, Karamakate is not pleased. He fears it is his chullachaqui. A word he uses many times, it is a term meaning a hollow copy of oneself so that one drifts now without meaning or purpose.
The pair again come to the mission and find it an even more grotesque place than before. The children have grown up and have enslaved themselves to a deranged man claiming to be the Messiah. Wearing a crown of thorns and a robe, the Messiah babbles a combination of Latin and tribal words in his rituals. If anything, he is even crueler than the white priest in his treatment of his followers.
In another sequence they arrive at a settlement about to be attacked by a contingent of Columbian soldiers. This, plus the frequently mutilated rubber trees that they pass, show the ruin brought about the white man and his profit-obsessed colonialism.
Karamakate and Schultes eventually arrive upriver at the mountains where the last Yakruna flower is blossoming. I will leave it to you to discover what ensues—though perhaps to entice you to search this film out, I will mention that there is the only color segment in this black and white film, one that will remind you of the trip in 2001 Space Odyssey.
Mr. Guerra is similar to the prophet Jeremiah in that the film is one long lament over irretrievable loss–of land and culture, and perhaps of soul. It is not the white men, but the native Karamakate who is the most important character in the film, a far cry from the usual noble savage being helped by the good white man tale. We even see this in the segment when Theodor is trying to get back his compass from the tribe that has given them supplies. He had shown and explained it to them the night before, and now they want to keep it to use for their own journeys. But when he tells Karamakate that it will lead them to forget their own method of using the star and the wind for telling direction, the latter sees this seemingly well-intentioned act as another example of white mans condescension, so he says, “You cannot forbid them to learn.” Karamakate also reminds both men that hey need to learn to dream, and also urges one of them “Listen to what the river can tell you, every tree, every flower brings wisdom.” The importance of dreams, stressed many times by the shaman, links his culture to that of the Biblical cultures in which dreams also were an important means for God to communicate with people.
The film becomes mystical, often showing us images of snakes being born. Late on there is also a scene in which a jaguar and a large snake engage one another, and of course there is also that psychedelic-like “trip” already mentioned. This is an original film made with great skill, aided considerably by David Gallego’s ultra crisp black and white photography. The latter evokes the style of the countless documentaries made by scientists who have ventured into the world’s jungles, but the story itself conjures memories of such lurid journeys into the heart of darkness as Apocalypse Now or Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God. Lots of memorable material for a group to discuss in what perhaps is a truly great film! At the end Mr. Guerra dedicates it to “all those South American indigenous peoples “whose song we never knew.”
This review will be in the April 2016 issue of VP with a set of discussion questions.