How do we as a people relate to the world around us? In what ways have we ignored or listened to the delicate balance of nature? Embrace of the Serpent takes it’s viewers on a tour de force journey through the heart of the Amazon to find the answers to these very questions. Based on the travel diaries of two scientists who, forty years apart, built a relationship with the same shaman, Karamakate, in search of a mythic healing plant.
Throughout the film, a dialogue forms around the differences between the way Amazonian natives and the way white imperialists see themselves in context to their environment. A scene that highlights this is when Karamakate has his picture taken by one of the explorers. He’s shown the image and considers it to be a Chullachaqui. As Karamakate explains further, it becomes a clear metaphor to the main rift between the clashing points of view. Every one has a Chullachaqui, it’s a ghost that looks just like you, but he is hollow and without memory; perpetually lost in time without time. Just like the two main travelers and the culture they represent, they are ghosts obsessed with dwelling in the small image of themselves instead of listening to and connecting to larger living self, represented by the forest.
Not shying away from dark moments in Columbian history, along the journey we come across maimed victims of the rubber trade and an insane catholic missionary. Both illustrate the disorder the imperialist culture brought to the natives. Cleverly shot in black and white to reinforce this motif, dark vs. light, it also has the added effect of obstructing any colors that would distinguish people from the forest. In culmination with the other themes, the production’s noble goal becomes clear, to unify the conflicting cultures by to helping them to recognize their shared identity.
Director Ciro Guerra makes an enlightened decision to have the Amazon play a dominant role throughout his film. With this, Guerra unifies the separate stories he cuts between, and enmeshes all his characters in the same wild pattern. In one hypnotizing shot, the camera enlists the serpentine river to bridge boundaries of time and space by panning from an expedition rowing up stream to the other down river. Fluidly traveling forty years in one shot and encapsulating the timeless essence of the Amazon. To isolate yourself from this eternal being is to become a Chullachaqui; a ghost without memory. Get to the theater and be ready for one of the most unique, intimate, and surreal journeys into the Amazon that will transport you past the edge of your cultural identity.