In the Amazon in 1909, a German scientist who is ill seeks a cure from a shaman on his route. Embrace of the Serpent, both meditation and action story, documents a series of journeys down the majestic river. Even though it is cast with actors, the movie re-enacts and imagines real events. The scientist – Theodor Koch- Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), a German studying indigenous peoples and their sacred plants– is accompanied by an ex rubber plantation worker, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue). Both Manduca and the shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), have reason to be leery of anyone associated with the white men running the rubber plantations, and Karamakate especially wants nothing to do with white people. He has witnessed atrocities which later we see first hand.
First businessmen’s profits come at the expense of the people who live there. Christian missionaries impose their religion on an already spiritual people whose beliefs tie them to the earth and the planets. Karamakate decides to live apart, so it is understandable, when first confronted with the German’s need for the healing plants of the region, he resists. Karamakate is played by Nilbio Torres, an indigenous person from Colombia, and his presence, rooted in his culture, with supreme confidence, drives the movie.
Finding the special plant Yakruna involves twists and danger. We see it all from the point of view of Karamakate, the last sane man standing for his native culture. When they come upon a Christian mission run by a priest who has brainwashed all the boys there to believe that their native ways are perverse, you see how the native peoples’ beliefs were trampled, their lands stolen, their sacred plants used for commerce, their languages abandoned.
The other journey takes place 30 years later, with an American scientist, Richard Evan Schultes (Brionne Davis). He is seeking the plant for a different reason, and by now, Karamakate, (played by an older actor, Antonio Bolivar) has been living apart from everyone, and has nothing left to lose. Karamakate goes to the mystical mountains where the last sprigs of the plant grow. The final scenes take place in these stunning mountains, and are unforgettable.
Embrace of the Serpent contrasts beliefs of natives against methods of science, care of the land versus harvesting of plants for profit. Where does our spiritual center lie, and do science and doctrinal religion interfere with it? The movie is in black and white which emphasizes its feeling of eulogy for a lost people. Ciro Guerra’s film is a beautiful and sad tribute to them.