Big Screen: Embrace of the Serpent review
August 16th 2016
Embrace of the Serpent is an arthouse film directed by Ciro Guerra. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2015 and has been met with rave reviews. It’s an Amazonian Heart of Darkness, which pits the knowledge systems of the Western world up against the knowledge systems of the tribal people of the Amazon.
Shot in black and white, the film tells the story of Karamakate, the last surviving member of his Amazonian tribe, who comes into contact with two European scientists at different stages in his life. In the earlier timeline, it’s a German ethnographer, Theodor, who has fallen sick and can only be cured by the ‘mover of worlds’ himself, Karamakate. This story frames the film nicely; suggesting that even with the wealth of information that Theodor has access to, there are still more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in this white man’s philosophy.
In the second timeline, it’s an American botanist, Evans, who approaches an aged Karamakate and requests his help to find the rare yakruna plant: the same plant that was needed to help cure Theodor. The symmetry between those two stories is at the crux of what this film is trying to say, and what makes it a challenging but engaging movie to watch.
By contrasting the attitudes of the central characters, Embrace of the Serpent asks some really interesting questions about the knowledge that we hold as true, and how our ideas evolve. Karamakate doesn’t meet the rigorous academic standard that Theodor or Evans hold dear, but he’s still a scientist, who has learned things about the world that they simply don’t have access to.
In valuing the knowledge systems of both the Western and the tribal people, the film takes a remarkably nuanced approach to history – one that I think is quite rare in film. It attempts to develop a complete picture about the impact of colonialism, without preferencing a single world view. It’s not just that Karamakate has knowledge that the European scientists don’t possess. It’s that they each know something that the other doesn’t, and that ultimately, knowledge without checks and balances can be dangerous.
Embrace of the Serpent is one of those films that has you leaving the cinema a little uncertain that you understood the message. But it’s fantastic for after-movie discussion. So if you’re looking for an arthouse flick, give this a crack.