Blog Directory CineVerse: Don't squeeze the shaman

Don't squeeze the shaman

Monday, August 24, 2020

Part adventure/odyssey, part documentary, part road trip (with a boat and a river substituting for a car and a highway), and part psychedelic head trip, Embrace of the Serpent works as several films in one, creating an unforgettable cinematic experience aimed to stir your emotions and your social conscience. After watching the movie last week, our CineVerse group had many observations. Here's a summary.

Other movies or works of literature that spring to mind after watching Embrace of the Serpent

  • Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote
  • Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially for the similarities to the Stargate sequence at the end of the film
  • Apocalypse Now, which also depicts a power-mad and megalomaniacal dictator
  • Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, two historical epics by Werner Herzog set in the Amazon
  • Dances With Wolves

What did you find memorable, distinctive, surprising, or puzzling about this film?

  • It’s shot in glorious black and white, on location in the jungles of Vuapes, Columbia, with the filmmakers opting for a monochromatic palette over what many would consider the obvious choice: dazzling color. The latter would have showcased the Amazon jungle beautifully, but arguably would have distracted viewers from the central messages of the film. Black and white is often the appropriate template for movies about a bygone place and era, and it creates a classic, timeless patina and resonance that’s appropriate for a film like this.
  • Interestingly, the picture bursts into resplendent color once Evan takes his hallucinogenic trip, zooming out celestially with each subsequent image until we see universe become multiverse.
  • This is the first Colombian movie ever to earn an Academy Award nomination, in this case for Best Foreign Language Film.
  • This is a road trip movie of sorts that traces two different timelines, but with the shaman serving as the bridge between both tales.
  • This movie “aims to speak for the untold hundreds of thousands whose cultures and language were wiped out by invading rubber profiteers,” wrote Slant Magazine reviewer Steve Macfarlane, who added “the paralleled trajectories allow the screenplay to trace the Domino -like effects of this violence across generations. In the face of such historical vastness, no mere three-act screenplay would suffice for encapsulation.”

Themes evident in Embrace of the Serpent

  • The dark and destructive legacy of colonialism and the rape of the natural world. White men have been exploiting South America and the Amazon rain forest for hundreds of years, with countless conquistadors, missionaries, rubber barons, and modern capitalistic entities destroying indigenous tribes and cultures and stealing its natural resources.
  • The loss and reclamation of identity, and the redemption of a lost soul. The shaman Karamakate is shown in two separate stories and time periods, with his older self lamenting his loss of memory and devolution into a chullachaqui, a deflated spirit roaming the land without purpose or past to motivate him. Yet, we see the older shaman remember his way back to old haunts and places containing the rare and elusive yakruna plant. Karamakate can impart his wisdom upon a second white man, despite his diminished status.
    • We also witness how the orphans of the native tribes and those enslaved have been stripped of their identities, beliefs, and practices by the invading white men, including the missionary and rubber barons.
  • Man versus nature, as exemplified, respectively, by the serpent – which the indigenous peoples believed brought mankind to the earth in the form of an anaconda – and a jaguar, which could represent the untamed jungle, natural world, and/or Mother Nature. Later, we see a night vision-illuminated battle between the two animals, with the jaguar emerging victorious. This perhaps suggests that nature, or planet Earth, will ultimately prevail in its long struggle against the encroachment of man.
  • The circularity and constant flow of life. The filmmakers use the river, and some clever editing, to connect the two storylines, which feature two intelligent and relatively respectful white men, Theo and Evan, each seeking the mysterious yakruna plant. This plant serves as a kind of fountain of youth or holy Grail for each of these men.

Other films directed by Ciro Guerra

  • The Wandering Shadows
  • The Wind Journeys
  • Birds of Passage
  • Waiting for the Barbarians

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