Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo del Serpiente) is a remarkable movie by Ciro Guerra about the Amazon. While it follows somewhat in the tradition of the movies by Werner Herzog (Aquirre, the Wrath of God and Fitcarraldo) it differs from them in one significant aspect: the viewpoint of the movie is that of the indigenous people. The movie is actually two stories forty years apart about the search for miraculous healing plant, yakruna. The stories are based on the journals of Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes and are connected by the character of Karamakate, a shaman and the last survivor of his people.

While the damage of colonialism and unfortunate results when Westerners meet natives pervade the story, the movie is about much more. Most of all it is about the power of dream.

The movie is shot in Colombia in black and white. While one might think this to be a poor choice for a movie about a region so verdant and rich in color, actually the stark black and white emphasizes the harsh reality of the Amazon. For all its abundance of life, the Amazon is a difficult place to live. Animals of the Amazon are elusive, difficult to catch, and likely as not to regard you as prey. Many of its plants are inedible with burning saps or poisonous fruits. Its insects sting and bite. Any success one obtains from the environment is likely to be temporary as relentless Nature reclaims its dominance. In the movie Fitzcarraldo, Fitzcarraldo manages with the assistance of natives to tow a boat over a mountain to transport rubber on an “uncivilized” part of the river. In the night the natives set the boat free on the river to be smashed in the rapids to return eventually to the “civilized” world from where it came. Herzog, in the movie Burden of Dreams about the making of Fitzcarraldo, describes the Amazon as “the place where dreams die.”

The dreams that die there, however, are the false dreams of conquest and control, the illusion we can master Nature. These are the dreams of colonialism that seeks to convert the natives and exploit the forest for rubber and pharmaceuticals. We see the disaster of this approach in the slave of the rubber harvesters who begs to be killed and the Christian outpost with the insane priest who whips sadistically the children in his care. The damage persists as the priest is killed in the earlier timeline of the movie but the children on their own grow to adults and in the later timeline are seen worshiping a deluded Messiah, another false dream.

In the world of Karamakate, the dreams of sleep, the dreams of ayahuasca (caapi in the movie), and the waking dream we call “real” life are part of a continuum, no part of it less or more real than the other parts. Karamakate sees a drawing of a complex symbol in a book and says it was something he had seen in a dream. In the earlier timeline Theodor Koch-Grünberg is ill but his illness can only be cured by “dreaming” which he is unable to do. He begs Karamakate to take him to find yakruna so he can dream and be cured. The search for yakruna is the search for power to dream. Karamakate tells him he must obey the prohibitions and warns him to avoid meat and fish until the proper time. He violates the prohibitions and dies.

In the later timeline Karamakate is approached by Richard Evans Schultes and asked to find yakruna. Schultes, like Koch-Grünberg before him, carries the accoutrements of civilization – cases of books, equipment, and a phonograph like the one that plays a prominent role in Fitzcarraldo. Going upstream in a canoe Karamakate repeatedly tells him they are too heavy, that they must dump everything overboard. Schultes eventually accedes, dumping everything but the phonograph. In the end Karamakate takes Schultes to the last yakruna plant. Schultes confesses he only wants the plant to improve rubber. Karamakate takes the last plant and uses it to brew caapi. The dream of exploiting yakruna is gone forever with the last plant but the gift of dream remains. It is a gift that tells us to travel light, to take no more than we need, be reverent, and not be destroyed.

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