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'Embrace of the Serpent' Is a Haunting Tale of Colombia's Amazon

The country's first Oscar-nominated feature film takes a clear-eyed view of colonialism and its legacy.
Embrace of the Serpent
Photo by Andrés Córdoba / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

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Director Ciro Guerra searches the Amazon's colonial past with "Embrace of the Serpent"

In Colombia’s first Oscar-nominated feature film, director Ciro Guerra offers both an ode to humanity's capacity to hope and a eulogy for the loss of Latin America’s indigenous culture and knowledge.

"Embrace of the Serpent" takes place during Latin America’s rubber boom in the early 20th century. The film’s message is delivered through Karamakate, a shaman and the last surviving member of his tribe. His story is based loosely on the diaries of two scientists, German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American Richard Evans Schultes, whose characters accompany Karamakate on two epic journeys through the rain forest.

In parallel stories (Theo meets Karamakate in the early 1900s, while Evan finds him in the 1940s), the two scientists enlist the shaman’s guidance in finding the elusive Yakruna, a flower believed to have healing powers. Despite the injustices that his people have endured at the hands of foreigners, Karamakate reluctantly agrees to help them both, driven by a yearning for his disappeared tribe and the Yakruna’s symbolization of its lost culture.

"Embrace of the Serpent" painfully highlights the abuse levied on the Amazon’s native peoples during the rubber boom of the late 1800s, which was driven by the enslavement and torture of thousands of indigenous men, women and children. Guerra makes no attempt to soften history; throughout the film, he juxtaposes spectacular shots of the Amazon’s natural beauty with displays of colonial cruelty, religious hypocrisy, resource exploitation and the loss of culture.

In a pivotal scene, Karamakate criticizes Theo’s loyal indigenous travel companion, Manduca, for helping the foreign scientist. Manduca defends his actions, saying “If we can’t get the whites to learn, we lose everything.”

But despite - or perhaps because of - the difficult nature of the film’s content, audiences and critics have taken to "Embrace of the Serpent." Of this year's foreign Oscar nominees, it has had the best U.S. theater showing so far.

Guerra, too, has received his fair share of attention in the U.S. His next directing project will be a Hollywood film called The Detainee. But the director remains firmly planted in his home country, saying in an interview with El Colombiano that, “my heart and the films I most want to make are in Colombia.” "Embrace of the Serpent" may already have set a new standard for Colombian cinema. A win this weekend for the groundbreaking, beautiful film would be icing on the cake.

"Embrace of the Serpent" opened in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles last weekend and is expanding to 20 theaters on Friday, February 26. It will open nationwide over the next few weeks.

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Bons is an editor for AQ.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Colombia, film, Amazon