Feed the Beast

A period piece that feels timeless, Embrace of the Serpent is a journey to the heart of the Amazon. Two trips, separated by decades but both in the first half of the twentieth century, take two different white men upriver in search of the same elusive plant. Karamakate, a shaman who lives in self-exile, takes a sick German explorer in search of a sacred plant that may him. Then, forty years later, an elderly, amnesiac Karamakate agrees to take an American scientist, who has “devoted his life to plants,” on a search for the same plant. “That’s the most sensible thing I’ve ever heard from a white man,” Karamakate deadpans.el_abrazo_de_la_serpiente

The Colombian film, shot in black and white 35mm, is stark and mesmerizing, as the two journeys reflect and deepen our understanding of each other. Colonialism has wrecked this corner of the earth, as rubber barons have enslaved whole tribes and isolated monasteries isolate children from their ancestral learnings with tales of a vengeful god. We revisit the same places again as Karamakate retraces his steps, and the grown children have turned their youthful lessons into a nightmare full of drugs and “suggested suicides.”

The film is based on the journals of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes. Karamakate (played as a young man by Nilbio Torres and as an old man by Antonio Bolivar) is the invented character that helps dramatize the clash of cultures as the western values of capitalization and materialism infect the tribes and people whose spirituality depended from the jungle where they lived. Wisdom is learned, forgotten, relearned or never achieved, as the beauty of the landscape withers at the touch of western exposure. Writer and director Ciro Guerra has created and soul stirring adventure into history that exposes the sickness at the heart of colonialism.

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