“Embrace of the Serpent is a mesmerizing feat of cinema. Guerra had me at frame one.”
-kogonada, Sight and Sound Magazine
It has been two days since I watched Embrace of the Serpent. I read a review of it in today’s newspaper, The Times (UK) film section, where they used the word “preachy” and awarded the film 3/5 stars. Arbitrary numbers out of numbers aside, I am fixated on this description of the film. The term preachy carries some very negative connotations with it, patronizing, condescending, essentially having someone openly and authoritatively explain things to you, without treating you as an independent free-thinker, but rather as a blinded fool who hasn’t seen the light.
Or maybe it doesn’t, maybe preaching is the act of teaching convinced by belief. The nature of preaching is up for discussion. The aching soul of Embrace Of The Serpent is not.
In its original tongue, El Abrazo de la Serpente is a story about the Amazonian orphan/outcast/shaman Karamakate, as he encounters two explorers 40 years apart, whose separate journeys intertwine and weave together along the winding river and maddening jungle world they inhabit. It’s also a densely textured work which questions the morality and ethics which drove the interactions between the invading colonial ‘whites’ and the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon. I use its original name, due to the film’s highly placed importance on language as being one of the key frontiers on which battles of culture and knowledge can be fought on ( the list of languages found in the film can be noted as such; Cubeo, Huitoto, Ticuna ,Wanano, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin and English).
The phenomena of the jungle landscape has been a partial obsession throughout cinema history, both Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola saw something beyond comprehension and utterly compelling there, and they conveyed that through their films, Herzog with Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), Coppola with his opus Apocalypse Now (1979). As has been reiterated many times in the promotional interviews for this film however, the difference lies in the central viewpoint being that of the native, rather than the ‘civilised’ explorer descending into an exoticised portrait of savage jungle life. Possessing incredible nuance gives it the ability to shift in and out of multiple viewpoints however, and imagining the film as a one-sided defense against the evil invading white people is a view which is only briefly held onto, by Karamakate himself.
Honestly I’m scratching my head talking about this, because I feel woefully unprepared to do so. I’ve managed to coast by on some earlier films, simply just winging it and talking about whatever I could conjure up. Here however, I’m confronted with a profound lack of sharpened tools to deal with such a work of poignant human exploration. Scattershot seems to be my current approach.
The title of this piece came to me mid-way through the film, so I’ll try to investigate this. The film on its spiritual journey comes into a series of isolated conflicts. One particular conflict lies in a brief stay at a tribe, as a young Karamakate is taking Theodor Von Martius, a sickly German explorer, to find the sacred yakruna plant which supposedly can cure him. Theodor spends good time in their company, taking advantage of their hospitality. He then shows the chief his compass, a device not encountered since their system of navigation relies on the position of the stars. When they go to leave the next morning, Theodor realises he does not possess his compass, and believes some children have stolen it. He pleads for it back, then demands, them grabs one of them. The exchange escalates as the chief reveals he has kept it, and refuses to return it, offering items in exchange. Theodor, hopeless and wounded, returns to his boat to leave. Karamakate chastises him for being ‘nothing but a white’. Theodor explains (paraphrasing) ‘that if they possess knowledge of the compass, their system of navigation will be lost, it must be preserved’ and I found myself shamefully agreeing with this in knee-jerk reaction, without thinking twice about it, because Karamakate replies ‘you cannot forbid them to learn, knowledge belongs to all men’.
That line induced a partial devastating effect on me, because it possesses such a high truth value. Theodor is happy to take advantage of them, but from a position of privilege and looking downwards on them, because the moment they try to steal the fire of the gods, in a Promethean act, he rationalises how dangerous it would be to let them learn, at the expense of preserving them like figures in a glass bottle. And it does open up that sphere of thought, because where does the act of preservation end and repression begin? Arthur C. Clarke, the great science fiction writer wrote ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ so is it right to even expose people without the historical insight the West gained from building these advances step by step, to a tribe which has no historical context to justify it? The point is not whether or not I can find an exact answer to each question, but to lay bare the ideological forces at work, colliding with each other.
This all sounds very heady and mystical, and as a result can feel very isolating to those who haven’t experienced it or had the same connection. But that battle is fought in the film as well, the battle of how willing you must be to surrender yourself to unknown forces. Caapi, a hallucinogenic drink in the film, is used to cross the boundaries of those who want to speak to the jungle, to the gods, to the primal spirits supposedly outside of ourselves. And Karamakate fights this battle in two fronts, in two different histories, in two different explorers who are spiritually linked. Both cannot dream, cannot properly transcend or surrender themselves. To what? Karamakate thinks its to the jungle itself. Theodor does not dream at all, and Karamakate eventually condemns him for it, before realising that he has to teach ‘the white’, embodied in the 1940s as Evan, an ethnobotanist, how to properly transcend and become a Coihauno, a member of Karamakate’s dead tribe and a warrior. But by doing this, he addresses us as well, Karamakate calling us to be a part of this, to understand the language of the jungle beyond anything we can imagine.
Reading that back it’s almost incomprehensible.
Another portion exists in a spanish missionary, where the kids have been taken in after rubber barons destroyed their homes. The father is a callous zealot, who persecutes the kids if they even speak their language, and are forced to speak Spanish or Latin. The troupe in the 1900s come by, and Karamakate, knowing its a sinful transgression in the eyes of the christian faith shows a few of the children some of his ‘pagan’ knowledge of the old ways. This leads to the kids being whipped hideously, before Theodor’s travelling partner assaults the padre, possibly killing him and they are forced to leave, liberating the children while the rest stay, torches burning.
Fast forward 40 years, and Karamakate returns with Evan, only to find the harvest he tried to sow, a perverse cult where one of boys has become the Messiah in this madness ridden Eden. Our troupe from the 1940s are believed to be ‘The Wise Men From The East’, and are forced to help the incurable wife of Jesus, a young girl suffering from an ailment I cannot recall the name of, but looks hideous. Eventually the madness ends with Karamakate crushing a potent plant into the drink of celebration, and the insanity that ensues leaves our Messiah being consumed by his followers as they “Eat the body of Christ!”.
The Latin is delivered wrong, because no one knows how to pronounce it correctly. The signs and symbols of their mutated Christianity and mutated ‘jungle knowledge’ (for lack of a better term) are summed up as Karamakate, lying on his bed in a state of loss, mourns “They are the worst of both worlds.” Even when trying to win their battles, the ravaging of time and the human instinct to misinterpret is ever-present.
I’m reminded of a sect of Islam known as Sufism, known primarily for its strong mystical slant. Over at this website they explain the ideas behind Sufism, but also the ideas which are the backbone of any mysticism;
“Sufism is a school for the actualization of divine ethics. It involves an enlightened inner being, not intellectual proof; revelation and witnessing, not logic. By divine ethics, we are referring to ethics that transcend mere social convention, a way of being that is the actualization of the attributes of God.
To explain the Truth is indeed a difficult task. Words, being limited, can never really express the perfection of the Absolute, the Unbound. Thus, for those who are imperfect, words create doubt and misunderstanding. Yet:
If one cannot drink up the entire ocean,
one can drink to one’s limit.
Philosophers have written volumes and spoken endlessly of the Truth, but somehow their efforts have always fallen short. For the sufi, philosophers are those who view the Perfection of the Absolute from a limited perspective; so all they see is part of the Absolute, not the Infinite in its entirety. It is indeed true that what philosophers see is correct; nevertheless, it is only a part of the whole.”
A large part of Sufism is devoted to discussing your experiences of transcendence. Since you can never truly be part of the One/the Truth, the best that can be done is discussing the transcendent glimpses you can grasp onto, the scraps, and sharing them with anyone else who might have encountered the same thing. Which really seems the best way to talk about this film, because a straight analysis of it just doesn’t give much out.
I mean this is the thing, every time I try to write about what is going on in this film, I find my words to be like sand running through my fingers. It’s so hard to even convey just what exactly happens, and I think that marks a thumbprint of true experiential filmmaking. It literally needs to be seen to be understood, and even when its seen, one can only glimpse the truth its trying to express. It’s Plato’s “Metaphor of the Cave” at its highest form, because even when we stare at the sun, at the truth, we’re only glimpsing the highest truth, never being one with it.
One thing I can compare it to is Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Embrace of the Serpent even comes equipped with its own ‘Stargate’ sequence, though it’s expressed differently.But both films must be seen to be believed first, and then must be infinitely explored to even try to understand them. And whether we do fully understand them or not (which we won’t) is irrelevant, what’s relevant is the embrace of the powerful images, the symbolism imbued in them, and the thought they provoke in us.
I mean I haven’t even talked about embracing or serpents yet. Well if you’re followed me this far, there’s one more sequence I’d like to discuss in the film. Karamakate explains when he first drinks caapi, that a boa constrictor spoke to him, and told him to kill Theodor. A jaguar told him to protect Theodor. The anaconda, the snake descended from heaven and gave birth to the world. The jaguar is the symbol of the Coihauno. Later in the film, a jaguar watches a boa constrictor. It bares its teeth, and approaches slowly. The serpent hisses. The jaguar strikes, killing the snake and holding it in its jaws. By the end of the film, the white man finally has encountered the spirit of the jungle, even though he came to exploit it, through Karamakate.
My question is this (the same one I asked at the end of 2001);
“What does this all mean?”
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