Embrace of the Serpent is a Colombian film about a native Amazonia man, Karamakate, who as a young man and then again thirty years later as an old man, leads two different white scientists up the Amazon river in search of a flower reputed to have powerful healing abilities. The two journeys are spiritual as much as they are physical, for both Karamakate and the scientists. The film is based on the journals of two scientists who made similar expeditions into the Amazon jungle at the turn of the twentieth century.
Embrace of the Serpent can be compared to Apocalypse Now, 2001: A Space Odyssey, El Topo, or Stalker. It is structured like the first, bears visual resemblance to the second, is as metaphysically ambitious as the third, and as philosophical as the fourth. It’s like an ethnographic film on hallucinogens, though the hallucinogenic sequences are pushed to the film’s beginning and end, mostly. It’s a trip in more ways than one, but it’s doggedly material and methodic for almost all of its runtime.
Karamakate is the last living member of his tribe. The rest of his people were killed by white colonialists who raped the jungle for rubber. He has set himself apart in order to maintain his people’s way of life. He adheres to the old codes, reveres the old gods, and practices the old medicine that involved eating, drinking, smoking, and snorting various ground-up botanicals. He is hostile to the white scientists with good reason – he has seen their people destroy his world.
The scientists are exactly that – they believe in facts and intend to preserve and learn from the indigenous peoples. They are there to study, they say, to bring the knowledge of the jungle peoples to the rest of the world. They have something in common with Karamakate. They too want to preserve this unique culture, but while the scientists see it ending, Karamakate has seen it end. So, though the scientists may be determined, Karamakate is desperate. The scientists see themselves as a last hope; Karamakate sees them as the last embers of a fire that has long since ravaged his land.
Embrace of the Serpent uses this tension to explore the tragedies that occur when one culture forces itself on another. Karamakate even uses that word—“culture”—to name the particular act of violence the white people enacted upon his people. “You will not culture me!” he exclaims, and with good reason, as the film’s journey up the river—notably against the current of the river and of time—is a kind of tour past the various aspects of Western culture that have been imposed upon these peoples. Karamakate is our reluctant guide as Embrace of the Serpent shows us the worst parts of colonialism, capitalism, and Western science and religion.
Nothing Western is favorable in this narrative, especially Christianity. While it is true that Christianity has worked good for people in non-Western cultures, Christianity married to political power and used as a tool of subjugation has never worked good for anyone. So I’m okay with this depiction of Christianity, because this is a Christianity divorced from Christ’s mandate to “love thy neighbor.”
Embrace of the Serpent is also mainly about the revitalization of spiritual consciousness that could come if we white Westerners relied a little less on our sensory perceptions and believed in that which lies beyond our physical interaction with the world. This is a movie about awakening from the dull stupor of self-centered awareness to the wider reverie of communal knowledge. Both Karamakate and the scientists need this new vision, but they must achieve it in different ways, because their self-centeredness takes different forms. As it does for us all. So, we may never drink a concoction made from a mythical flower, but hopefully something will wake us up, maybe a movie like this one.