Sunday, March 20, 2016


Nilbio Torres     Jan Bijvoet     Antonio Bolivar     Brionne Davis     Yauenku Migue

          Anyone remotely interested in anthropology and other cultures should check out Embrace of the Serpent, now open in select theaters.  The writers Ciro Guerra (also director) and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal drew from the diaries of two German scientists exploring the Amazon looking for a sacred plant, yakruna.  German Theodor Koch-Grunberg was there in 1909, and American Richard Evans Schultes in 1940.  Both have the same shaman, Karamakate (Torres as the younger and Bolivar as the older), the last surviving member of his tribe guiding them and sometimes treating them for illness.  Theo also had a younger traveling companion whose freedom he bought from a plantation to assist him, Manduca (Migue).
        The story involves a beautiful scenic trip down the Amazon, with stops for supplies at native settlements and a mission.  Some of the stops became dangerous when the natives regard them as enemies.  Theo encounters child abuse at a mission where the priest recruits young boys and beats them severely if he thinks they have attracted the devil.  At the same stop many years later, Richard has to deal with a man who has decided he is the Messiah who keeps tight reins on his people and demands to be worshiped. 
But dramatic attention is also given to the testy relationship between each scientist and Karamakate, who is convinced that whites are evil and destroy every living thing in their path. 
       “Whites bring hell and death to the earth”, he says at one point.  He derides the western scientists for cherishing their possessions, especially when they weigh down the boat on the river, their primary means of travel.  Karamakate tries to get the scientists to appreciate and respect nature, whereas the scientists attempt to use logic and reasoning with him.  They try to go along with his “treatments” but underneath are skeptical.
      David Gallego’s rich, black and white photography and Nascuy Linares’ music are as enjoyable as the story.  Guerra is successful in presenting the different cultures in such a way, we can value aspects of both, although he is much more critical of the white man for destroying indigenous people’s lives and knowledge.
        Embrace of the Serpent won the Art Cinema Award in the Directors' Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 2015, the first such honor for a Colombian film.

An enlightening journey back in time and space.

Grade:  B+                          By Donna R. Copeland

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