Runtime: 126 minutes
Main Cast: Jan Bijvoet
Written By: Ciro Guerra
Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
Directed by: Ciro Guerra
Embrace of the Serpent is a great and unique film. It’s one of those rare films that will have cinematic elements and story threads that you don’t see in many films and has the courage to blend it all into one great scene after another. When I first saw this film, I cannot deny that I was transfixed by it. It has ambition, great themes, and originality. After seeing this, I thought it was great but I wanted to know more about it before I made a final judgment. When I read up on it, I loved it even more.
Ciro Guerra is a great director and I have only seen one of his films (this one!). While plot-wise it sometimes isn’t clear (but easy to understand) it makes it up by the themes, the perspective of the story and the journey towards the yakruna plant. Critics have compared it to Apocalypse Now for its portrayal of the corruption of natives in the jungle, but I would argue that Embrace of the Serpent and Apocalypse Now are similar but different as they explore different dark themes.
The entire story is taken from the from the perspective of Karamakate (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar respectively) but is interwoven between the two time periods from when he is both young and old. It shows Karamakate helping both Theodor and Evan, both in different time periods, find the sacred yakruna plant, each has different motives for the plant and Karamakate helps both of them reluctantly, believing both men are honest.
I believe both Apocalypse Now and Embrace of the Serpent are films that look into the bleak morbid darkness inside the souls of the corrupt and the impact it has on people. While Apocalypse Now does this through the atrocities of war, Embrace of the Serpent explores this through the rape of cultural identity through European Colonialism.
It can be argued that the only good guy in this film is the main character is Karamakate who is the last of his tribe. He, at one point, forgets his entire culture as he has been alone for decades. At this point, he is an old man, a man who is a lone wolf survivor who tries to keep himself and his identity alive even though he is the last man of his tribe. His faith is once tested when a traveler wants him to search for the Yakurna plant “for a lot of money” showing two one-dollar bills. It is the beginning of the corruption and atrocity that ensues from the people and events that surround him.
There are multiple sequences throughout Karamakate’s travels that reveal the horrors of corruption in the Amazon. These themes revolve around torture (Shown in the “buckets of rubber” scene but not actually depicted) religious assimilation and fanaticism, loss of cultural identity, the ignorance of settlers with the lack of respect or understanding of native cultures. As you may have envisioned, this is one of the darkest, yet packed films that is filled with material and ideas. You would expect Embrace of the Serpent to be either too gruesome, preachy, tiresome or crammed. But how the story is executed made it a mesmerizing experience.
The execution of this story is phenomenal. Imagine a film with all those aforementioned themes. Add great acting, black and white cinematography, smooth, visual imagery of the natural landscape, two separate stories and that interweave throughout each other through different times while making it feel effortless. All of that and you get Embrace of the Serpent, a truly unique film.
It feels like a peaceful adventure every time they travel on the river, the violence is shocking but never overdone. It doesn’t gloss anything over. It shows horror and beauty the way it is. Every scene has a purpose and a reason for existing. I kept watching because 1. Karamakate is a wholesomely good character in a bad world and I wanted him to survive it with his integrity intact and 2. The visual splendor of this movie with great detail and the picture quality is detailed and enthralling. Speaking of which, The cinematographer is unbelievable. It reminded me of The Revenant as he smoothly traversed through the wilderness at a steady deliberate pace while constantly being in the right positions that trigger awe-inspiring visuals and captivating moments both the good and the bad.
Finally, I want to say this film is comparable to Apocalypse Now but more accessible as Embrace of the Serpent is slightly less brutal, more organic in the natural splendor, and has a shorter running time. Embrace of the Serpent is not a cathartic as Apocalypse Now, nor is it a poignant film, but it is mesmerizing for what it was and is better when reflected upon. I would guess that it gets better through multiple viewings.
This film and Mustang were two films that were nominated for the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards last year. Neither won. It is starting to show me that the award for best foreign film is more important and prestigious than the award for best picture. Filled with hard-hitting themes combined with a great story and masterful cinematic flair, Embrace of the Serpent will be an absolute classic that will be worshiped by not many people in the English-speaking world. At least Embrace of the Serpent, while insignificant to the many, will be remembered by the few. *****