Film Review: Embrace of the Serpent


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Embrace of the Serpent is a towering artistic achievement, a gloriously rich cinematic document, and absolutely, unequivocally, and categorically the most important film of its time. This is cinema at its apex—incisively relevant, impossibly sensual, and deeply respectful of the hidden divinities of history—while keenly attuned to the deficiencies of contemporary consciousness. Embrace of the Serpent should be shown at churches, temples, mosques and synagogues. It should be taught at schools and screened at town hall meetings. It should be present as a force of reclamation in institutions of law and spirit —as an exquisite agent of change with the potential to cleanse channels of faith and insight that have long been distorted, co-opted, and cynically repurposed.

It is a film that should be seen by every human being on this earth.

Part historical drama, and part mythic allegory, Embrace of the Serpent is the story of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman, and his relationship with two civilized scientists he encounters at two distinct points in time, set 40 years apart. The men—Theo, an elderly Belgian, and Evan, a young American—are each seeking the rare psychedelic Yakruna plant. Theo, in the throes of death, is in dire need of the Yakruna’s healing properties, while Evan, who identifies himself as an obsessive botanist, is eager to document this sacred and elusive organism in the interest of expanding the catalogue of his scientific métier.

Both men are interested in bringing the arcane culture of the Amazon to the world at large. They ostensibly engage Karamakate as a guide, but as the film progresses, and the veils of hierarchy and intent are immolated, Karamakate becomes much more: guardian, destroyer, redeemer, executioner and teacher. These revelations accrue in tandem with gruesome evidence of the war- borne Columbian rubber boom, which fostered the expansion of colonization and its attendant ecological and cultural destruction. Theo and Evan are transfigured by proxy in the face of the unfolding imagery of corruption, recast in this context as either emblems, or possibly, agents of mercenary decimation, ignorance, and faithlessness.

As they witness a tapestry of absolute evil brought forth from evil, and with evil as its end, fear and vengeance loom ominously in the air, until definitively pinned to the earth in scenarios of dissolute human transaction. It is in these brilliantly crafted and incomprehensibly terrifying scenes—abject realms of flesh meeting flesh—where Karamakate and company encounter and interact with the human causalities of this colossal and bloody-minded violation of Law and Nature. It is at these intersections that Embrace of the Serpent becomes a work of divinity.

Based on the real life accounts of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes, Embrace of the Serpent is the first dramatic feature to be shot in the Columbian Amazon in over 30 years, as well as one of the first films in history to be told from the point of view of the indigenous shaman rather than that of the latent imperialist in the guise of “explorer”. Shot in a remote area of the Amazon, the cast, crew, and creative team is a multicultural collective of supernaturally intuitive and gifted artists. In particular, the performative confluence of European and American actors with the indigenous people of the region is beyond authentic – it is nothing short of miraculous. Wielding both the brilliance of its execution and the integrity of its design, this film throws deft contrast between luminous shamanism and the debased systems of modern ideology.

Embrace of the Serpent is an unassailable work of the highest order. It is essential and it is beautiful. It is both the chalice and the blade.

The film is now playing at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, and Landmark's Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles. It will expand to 20 theaters this week and open nationwide over the next few weeks. Embrace of the Serpent is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards.

Photo by Andres Córdoba / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories