Movie of the Month: Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made HannaBrandon, and Britnee watch Embrace of the Serpent (2015).

Boomer: “The world is full of fishes,” Theo says. “We cannot possibly end them.” 

“You have no discipline,” Karamakate says, shortly thereafter. “You will devour everything.” 

El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent) is a 2015 Colombian film about an apocalypse. It isn’t one which comes with neither the fire nor ice of Robert Frost’s poetry or the heat or cold death of the universe that is hypothesized by modern science, nor a dumb superhero movie sky beam, nor is it one of clashes between heaven and hell (although they each certainly play a role). The film is a fictionalized synthesis of two real-life accounts written by German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872-1924) and American ethno-botanist Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), embodied here as two separate men who are taken on a treacherous Amazonian journey by an Indigenous man named Karamakate, the ostensibly last survivor of a village that was destroyed by colonizers exploiting the natural resources of South America. Koch-Grünberg is reimagined as “Theo” (Jan Bijvoet), who, with his “liberated” manservant Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) approaches the young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) in 1909 and asks him to be his guide to the sacred yakruba plant, a fictional sacred plant with healing qualities that Theo hopes will save him from his unnamed, wasting disease. Although he is initially hesitant, Karamakate is convinced to join this endeavor when Theo tells him that he has seen other survivors of his same tribe. The character inspired by Schultes, Evan (Brionne Davis), appears to the older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) in 1940 and claims that he has never dreamed and hopes that the yakruba will heal this missing part of him, working his way into the Indigenous man’s good graces by claiming to be devoted to plants, although his true goal is to secure disease-free rubber trees for American manufacturing for the war effort. 

Readers who have never seen the film may be asking themselves how this can be an apocalyptic story, if the latest time frame envisioned by the film is nearly eight decades ago, but for many of us, that is ignorance born of privilege as the descendants of colonizers and settlers, who can denounce the violence of our ancestry but nonetheless continue to benefit from it every day. As Pam Oliver once said, “If your ancestors cut down all the trees, it’s not your fault, but you still don’t live in a forest.” To put it another way, the (unfortunately now inactive) IndigenousXca Twitter account once posted a statement that lives in my mind perpetually: “something I don’t think occurs to settlers is that Indigenous people already are living in a post-apocalyptic world.” For the peoples of the Western Hemisphere, invaders came from another world, pillaged their natural resources, committed mass genocide, and drove the last living remnants of a whole world from their ancestral lands into reservations. For mass media created mostly by and mostly for white people, this is a common “apocalypse” narrative, wherein we are meant to empathize with and cheer for our mostly white heroes as they defend themselves against invading Soviets (ex.: Red Dawn), machines of our own creation (ex. MatrixThe TerminatorBattlestar Galactica), and aliens (ex.: Independence DayWar of the Worlds). Because we’ve been fed American exceptionalist propaganda for our whole lives by that same system and, frequently, our educational institutions, this results in a kind of psychic disconnect wherein the same people who are cheering the heroes in those works for fighting back against colonization and genocide will also show up to school board meetings frothing at the mouth to make sure that their children never learn about redlining or that Aunt Gloria was actually one of the girls who screamed the n-word at Tessie Prevost.

The river on which Karamakate spends his existence is a post-apocalyptic world. That the men he finds in his old village greet him with “We’re toasting to the end of the world” isn’t an accident. The “world mover,” as he is called by others, has been so traumatized by living through the (ongoing) destruction of his world that he considers himself to have become a chullachaqui, an empty shell that looks like a person but who lacks a living animus. The throughline of Indigenous destruction at the hands of profiteers, priests, and plantation-owners who come to “save” the “pagan” peoples of the jungle from “cannibalism and ignorance” is at the heart of Serpiente as, alongside Karamakate, we bear witness to the scars of exploitation on both the land and bodies of the people thereof. This is made manifest in the film’s final scroll, which is dedicated to those South American Indigenous peoples “whose song we never knew.” This is made most manifest in a pair of sequences that both take place in a Spanish Catholic Mission, in both 1909 and 1940. 

In 1909, Karamakate arrives with Theo and Manduca, after the three of them have already interacted with a man, for all intents and purposes an enslaved man, who has been violently disfigured by those who run the rubber plantations, and we see Manduca’s own scars from his time on one. They discover that the mission, which is implied to be a former plantation, has one remaining priest, and that this place is essentially a residential school in all but name, wherein indigenous children are abducted, renamed, prevented from speaking their “pagan” language (this is the subtitled translation, but to my ear it sounds like they’re saying “lengua demoníaca,” which is literally “demon tongue,” which I have no doubt is historically accurate and extremely telling); when Karamakate tries to impart some of their ancestral wisdom that weaves together both myth and medicine, the children are beaten mercilessly by the priest. The Amazonian River in 1909 is a place of both scars and fresh wounds; by 1940, there is only madness and death. The now-adult population, which may be the same boys whom Karamakate had met 31 years before, have descended into a full-on cult with a Messiah and everything. The beatings of the priest have devolved into a series of ritualistic sacrifices and self-flagellation, and the self-proclaimed messiah seems to have continued the priest’s tradition of kidnapping children, if I’m judging the age of his “wife” correctly. This can only end tragically, which it does. 

That colonization is inherently the antithesis of conservation is also an omnipresent theme in Serpiente. Before accepting Theo’s proposal, Karamakate sets out a series of prohibitions by which he must abide. To the western viewer, these first appear to be mostly the kind of “superstition” that we dismiss out of hand, but are a complex interweaving of thoughtful conservation, medicine, and defense alongside the spiritual, in a way that means that extricating one from the other is an exercise in self-sabotage. At the film’s outset, we’re never given a reason that Theo mustn’t eat fish or other meat. Shortly thereafter, they encounter Tuschaua (Marcilio Paiva) and his people, who have a prior, friendly relationship with the explorer, and Karamakate is surprised to learn that they eat fish even when they shouldn’t do so until a specific seasonal time has been reached, indicating that there’s an ecological element to the proscription. This is further emphasized during the first encounter with the Spanish Mission; Karamakate warns the children that “one day, [the colonizers] will finish all the food in the jungle.” The fish are like the rubber trees which are like the yakruba, all resources that are renewable but not endless. “The world is full of fishes, we cannot possibly end them,” Theo later says, but he’s wrong; Karamakate understands that they must abstain until after the rains end because there has to be a balance, and that Theo “will devour everything.” Further still, when Theo breaks this proscription, not only does he fall physically ill, he is also unable to further accept holistic medical intervention, as his body will now reject it. It’s spiritual, physical, and ecological, entwined. Theo’s inability to follow these rules are a demonstration that, to paraphrase the proverb, there is no ethical colonization, even when relations are friendly. When Theo discovers that Tuschaua’s people have taken his compass, he decries that leaving behind this (to them) advanced technology will, in time, supplant and erase their Indigenous cultural knowledge of an “orientation system […] based on the winds and the position of the stars.” What he can’t see, but that Karamakate does, is that contact with Europeans has already begun to undermine them, as evidenced by their preparation of fish despite the season being incorrect. Theo may truly believe he’s doing the moral thing by attempting to prevent further cultural contamination, but the first dominos have already fallen, and to introduce Tuschaua and his family, possibly the last generation of their people because of the intervention of profiteers, to a technological advancement and then deny them its use isn’t a kindness, but a cruelty. 

At the mission, Karamakate sees a plaque (in Spanish, which he presumably cannot read, and thus this is solely for the benefit of the audience) endowed by the Colombian government, which thanks the violent colonizers for “[bringing] civilization to the land of cannibal savages and showed them the path of God” (emphasis added). When sharing his knowledge with the children there, he warns them: “Don’t believe their crazy tales about eating the body of their gods.” Decades later, those same children now not only believe these tales to an extreme, but then do in fact eat their Messiah. I think that this can be interpreted in several ways—that wickedness often reveals itself in the way that it projects its worst aspects onto the proverbial other (like when the same people who ~allegedly~ participate in interstate sex trafficking also unironically tweet out #disneygroomer because a media monopoly reluctantly and sluggishly took a stance against a law that in practice is definitively going to result in a surge of domestic violence and rampage familicide), or as a contributing narrative thread in the overall tapestry of the film’s conservationist thesis. Hanna, what did you make of this during your first viewing? Did you get a sense of that, am I plucking at strings, did you interpret it completely differently?

Hanna: What a great point! I think I basically had the same feelings as you. In addition to receiving the message of holy cannibalism through Christianity, the heart of the mission is founded on the belief that the children are “cannibal savages” being uplifted through God; under the instruction of the priests, there’s no way for the children to find meaning for themselves outside of that narrative. What kind of identity can you form when you’re assured that you’re fundamentally inhuman at the core, and the “righteous” path you’ve been assimilated into is violent at its core? I definitely agree with the projection aspect as well. Like Karamakate points out, colonialism is inherently cannibalistic; the dominant culture is actively devouring the bodies and resources of the colonized people, destroying their way of life and the ecosystem on which they depend. To deny and rationalize cannibalism, the colonizers convince themselves that their subjects are not only inhuman, but that they would have no hope of redemption without the mercy of “civilized” people; you’re not a cannibal if you’re not eating people!

I think Embrace of the Serpent is, by far, the most nuanced, honest, thought-provoking movie I’ve ever seen about colonialism and conservation. The film is shot almost entirely in black and white, which works well with the narrative shifts between 1909 and 1940 – it kept the two time periods tied together in my mind as one artifact, and the film almost reads like a marriage of two old pioneering documentaries that someone salvaged. There’s no hint of sentimentality here. The Amazonian jungle is lushly rendered (even without color) and beautiful images abound, but the film is unflinching in its depiction of violence, whether it manifests interpersonally, physically (self-inflicted or otherwise), or internally. I’m always entranced by films that seem to have a tactile temperature; they tend to be meditative, slowly dragging you down into a maddening dream or nightmare. This was definitely a nightmare, but especially because it’s a lived reality.

The two timelines vividly depict the ripples of alteration and destruction that invasion has wrought onto Karamakate’s community and the ecosystems that community depends upon. I agree that this is an apocalypse movie, and I think that (barring natural cataclysms) most apocalypses probably end up looking like this: a slow deterioration of life as it was until the old ways of existing are no longer possible. It seems pretty difficult to make a movie about colonialism that didn’t somehow feel like it was exploiting suffering for the sake of self-reflection, but Guerra apparently worked in close collaboration with Indigenous communities from the Amazon; I think the infusion of that perspective has a lot to do with the film’s success.

Like Boomer mentioned, the cultural exchange between the settlers or visitors and the Indigenous people is difficult to navigate; the contact has irrevocably changed the Indigenous people, but there’s no going back from that point, so withholding knowledge or trying to stem contamination is impossible and cruel. That being said, there are a few moments of true human connection that I really appreciated in this film; in one scene, Evan plays Haydn’s “The Creation” on his gramophone for Karamakate. It was hard to read Karamakate’s expression at that moment, but he seemed moved to me, and the music takes him back to a memory of Theo in his last days of sickness. The last scene of the movie involves an unbelievable gift from Karamakate marking the end of one civilization’s way of life, even in the face of a violent betrayal (the only scene with color in the entire movie). Brandon, what did you make of this ending? Did you feel any shred of hope for humanism and connection in spite of centuries of selfishness and violence, or did redemption die with the yakruba? 

Brandon: If we’re going to consider the present state of the Amazon post-apocalyptic, it’s difficult to read Embrace of the Serpent as anything but a tragedy.  If either timeline in the film were present-day, there might be room for hope, but we know that capitalist exploitation of the Amazon’s people & resources didn’t cool off after 1940.  The yakruba’s extinction at the end, although fictional, represents a wide range of decimated resources, and Evan represents a wide range of white colonizers responsible for that tragedy.  All Karamakate can offer him is a glimpse of the beauty & power that will soon be lost forever, in all its natural glory.

The film smartly undercuts a lot of its warmer, humanistic interactions in this way.  I’m thinking particularly of the sequence in which Theo & Manduca entertain a small tribe with a practiced song & dance routine around a campfire, a moment of communal delight that first warms Karamakate up to the idea of collaborating with white outsiders.  It’s the very next morning when Theo freaks out about his stolen compass, souring the possibility for positive cultural exchange with supposed ethical concerns about industrialized technology ruining locals’ more “natural” way of life.  There’s no way that interference from white outsiders won’t irrevocably change the local culture forever, so all Theo accomplishes is shielding them from any possible positive gains from the tragedy that will gradually consume them.  There cannot be any hope in these cross-cultural interactions no matter how personable & heartfelt they feel in the moment.

The sudden introduction of color at the end did make me think more about the film’s digi black & white cinematography.  The contrast between the deep shadows of trees and the sharp white voids of the sunlit sky is striking, but it’s definitely an unusual way of capturing the immense beauty of the Amazon on film.  Britnee, what do you think of the film’s visual style?  Does the sudden rush of color at the ending make you wish it had been styled differently?

Britnee: I thought about this for most of the film. Why would something as beautiful as the Amazon jungle be filmed in black and white? It wasn’t until the burst of color at the end that I understood that choice. As the Indigenous tribes and natural resources of the Amazon are destroyed, the Amazon loses its vitality. While the black and white imagery was stunning, it created a dreadful ambiance that really connected me with the emotions of Karamakate. Well, as connected as a white woman can be. I will never truly understand what it feels like to go through, as Boomer perfectly stated earlier, a post-apocalyptic tragedy. 

I had a couple of self-reflective moments while watching Embrace of the Serpent, but one that really struck me was during the scene where Karamakate asks Theo to get rid of all the luggage that is weighing them down during their journey. I stared around my room to look at all of the junk I’ve acquired throughout the years, and I couldn’t even imagine how it would feel to not value my possessions as much as I do. I associate memories with all of my belongings, but how would it feel to have the same attitude as Karamakate? I don’t really need all of this baggage to survive or maintain a high quality of life. I mean, I’m still probably not going to get rid of anything because I’m a garbage person, but Karamakate really hit me in the feels with that one.

Lagniappe

Britnee: This made me think of Fitzcarraldo, which we covered on the podcast a few years ago. The production of Embrace of the Serpent was definitely not as problematic though!

Brandon: We talked a lot about the evils of capitalism & colonialism here (always worthy subjects), but to me this registered most clearly as a condemnation of anthropology as a morally bankrupt field of study.  Theo’s attempts to interact with Amazonian locals without altering their way of life is pathetically misguided, as evidenced by the wide-scale destruction that follows in his wake decades later.   The real-life Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s research is a cornerstone of anthropological field work to this day, so that cursed corner of academia was never very far from my mind throughout the film. 

Hanna: Embrace of the Serpent was a difficult movie to watch and process, but I’m glad it exists. I really appreciate the director’s efforts to make a piece of art that honors and includes the perspectives of Indigenous communities, and from my perspective, he did a great job of honestly reckoning with the destruction of Indigenous life and the loss our world experiences (and will continue to experience) as a result.

Boomer: Unfortunately, the IndigenousXca Twitter account stopped posting some time ago, and the bio now indicates that it’s an archive for posts made from the account Oct. 23, 2014 – Dec. 3, 2020. In a post on the associated blog from March 2021, entitled “Social media burn-out, it’s not just you,” the author writes that this has a lot to do with the stresses of being very online and that it became overwhelming. The author’s personal Twitter, however, is still active, and you can go follow her now and keep up with her thoughts on contemporary politics, which are always insightful and thoughtful.

Next month: Britnee presents White of the Eye (1987)

-The Swampflix Crew