These days, most, if not all forms of video made in and about the Amazon rainforest, whether they’re full-length films or National Geographic shorts, are shot in color.
The Amazon is the most naturally diverse place on Earth: a heady quilt of humid green, every square foot filled with rainbow-winged birds of paradise and iridescent insects found nowhere else on the planet. The stunning black and white cinematography of Embrace of the Serpent is the first sign for the audience that this movie will not be the movie you expect it to be.
The plot is straightforward. Chronologically the film is split in half: Karamakate (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar as Young and Old, respectively), a shaman and the last survivor of the Cohiuano, leads first a German naturalist in 1909 and then an American one in 1940 through the Amazon in search of yakruna, a rare, sacred plant that, when prepared correctly, gives the one who drinks it certain visions. He is hesitant at first, and only after he has grudgingly agreed to travel with them does he eventually warm to both.
Woven into the narrative is the popular conceit of Western imperialism and the colonial influence on the Amazon throughout the centuries. Many times the travelers come across evidence of the rubber trade: hellish plantations dotted around the jungle where native laborers are worked to death. At one point, Karamakate and the German naturalist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) come across a school for native children who were stolen from their homes and converted to Catholicism. Karamakate passes through this place again on his journey with the American, Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), and they see that the Spanish missionaries are nowhere to be found, while the now adult natives have created their own distorted, horrific version of the Biblical stories they were told as children.
They have stripped the religion down and built it up again in their image, creating a terrifying cultish society out of the missionaries’ legacy.
Karamakate sees a difference in Theo that he also sees in Richard thirty years later. These men don’t want to take from the Amazon, they want to learn. He is drawn to their appreciation of knowledge without material wealth, although he still teases their need for things—he constantly mutters to Richard about the uselessness of his valises full of books and papers. For him, material possessions are nonsensical. The two white men also share something else in common: neither can dream, and the yakruna is the only thing that can help them.
“Before he can become a warrior,” Karamakate explains, “every Cohiuano man has to leave everything behind and go into the jungle, guided only by his dreams.” There is a creation myth about the Amazon in which the river was originally a great snake that fell to earth, twining around the trees and mountains.
The Amazon is perpetually determining whether or not to let these men live. Only by gaining the ability to dream will they survive the serpent.
Embrace of the Serpent screened Wednesday night at the Naro with guest speaker Tom Crockett, and will be showing through this weekend.