There are very few assignments I’ve had in college that actually impacted me and my perception of the world, but watching Embrace of the Serpent by Ciro Guerra was one of them. When I first saw the syllabus and researched the film, I was annoyed. It was released in 2015 in black and white, even though color was fully accessible for filmmakers. I mean, how pretentious can a film get? I’ve never been happier to say that I was wrong. “Embrace of the Serpent” is a haunting film about the colonization of the Amazon jungle by western civilizations and the impact it has left on the few remaining Amazonian societies.
The film features 10 languages: Cubeo, Witoto, Ticuna, Wanano, English, Latin, Catalan, German, Portuguese and Spanish. The first four languages are all native languages spoken by tribes in the Amazon, where the movie takes place. The story revolves around a local shaman named Karamakate and his interactions with two European men: one in the year 1909 and the other in 1940. The men come to the Amazon in search of a sacred (and fictional) plant called yakruna. The first man, Theo von Martius from Germany, planned to use the yakruna to heal his sickness. The second man was an American named Evan who told Karamakate he wanted to follow Theo’s path to find the yakruna, but really wanted to find a secure source of rubber for America because of increased tensions with South East Asia due to World War II.
While the plot seems less eventful than other movies, the film style Ciro Guerra used in the movie gave it the dramatic touch necessary to keep audiences and film critics intrigued. “Embrace of the Serpent” has multiple accolades, including the Art Cinema Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015 and a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the 2016 Academy Awards. One of its biggest achievements, in my opinion, is its 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To put it in comparison, “Psycho” (directed by Alfred Hitchcock) is slightly better with a 97% approval rating. Ciro Guerra was also decorated with the Order of the Inrida Flower by the Governor of the Guainia Department for, “exalting the respect and value of the indigenous populations” within the Amazon. Guerra also respected the indigenous people by hiring amateur actors from the Amazon to play the main roles: one from the Cubeo Vaupes people and another from the endangered Ocainas people.
Despite how horrific and unforgettable the scenes in the movie are, Ciro Guerra paints a light version of the horrors Amazonian natives faced through his exploration of a monastery that “civilized” native children and the rubber plantations on which many Amazonians were forced to work.
The lives of the oppressed have long been forgotten in history and erased by those who colonized them. While this movie in no way rectifies the injustices Amazon natives suffered at the hands of Europeans, it does offer an insight into a point of view that very few people are lucky enough to experience. Do yourself a favor and watch Embrace of the Serpent to better understand a drastically underrepresented group whose stories are rarely heard.