Amazon Apocalypse, or, a Bend in the River

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A Commentary & Review of EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT

A film by Ciro Guerra, Written by Ciro Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde
Academy award nominee, Best Foreign Language Film
125 minutes - NR-  – Colombian, English subtitles
Note: This title was Mountain Shadow's film for April, 2016

    In this moment, it is not possible for me to know, dear reader, if the infinite jungle has started on me the process that has taken many others that have ventured into these lands, to complete and irremediable insanity.  If this is the case, I can only apologize and ask for your understanding, for the display I witnessed in those enchanted hours was such, that I find it impossible to describe in a language that allows others to understand its beauty and splendor; all I know is that, like all those who have shed the thick veil that blinded them, when I came back to my senses, I had become another man. —from the diary of Thjeolor Koch Grunberg (1872-1924)

Here’s what you get in over two hours of movie watching: A river to explore. Two different adventurers in search of a legendary, but illusive prize with an unknown destination. Modern “civilized” man’s search for certitude and domination of nature, and the ill-fated consequences.

There’s also the tension between the reality of dreams and the horrific nightmares humankind enacts, time and again. There are ancient mythic tales that can chart a serpentine course no cartographer’s map can trace. There’s an Amazonian sage and shaman that not only challenges Western thinking, but can utterly transform a man in the process of his own evolution. 

Embrace of the Serpent offers up a spellbinding trip upriver with two tales and time periods that share a common quest. Here is a film that also conjures up reminiscences of other earlier cinematic dramas, containing similar universal motifs.

There was the Roland Joffé’s 1986 film, The Mission; where the tragic consequences of the conquest of indigenous peoples in 18th century South America highlighted blind ignorance, might and greed.

Earlier, there was Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic saga, Apocalypse Now; where the Vietnam warrior ventures up a river of death and destruction, leading to “the horror” that has all the appearances of being the end of the world. There are similar elements of madness and savagery in SERPENT, but there’s more, as well. 

There are the externals that clash, and the interior journey of personal transformation, like a bend in the river of life. There’s the desire for rubber that when galvanized can be put to such practical use as keeping the wheels of modern warfare spinning.  And there’s the legendary, mystical yakruna plant that possesses the allure of sacred, healing properties to life itself. When it is finally found, it is discovered entwined around the rubber tree. It is humankind’s age-old dilemma, masterfully depicted in this film.

The story takes place in the Vaupies region of the Columbian Amazon, with Karamakate the shaman encountering two different Western explorers at two different times in his life.  As a young man, he is once shown a photograph of himself, which is one of the few things he wants to possess. Why?

As he understands the image before him, it is his Chullachaqui, a mythological figure of the Amazon. It is the hollow, empty copy of a human being who roams the jungle waiting to find someone to deceive. Every human being has a chullachaqui, who is exactly like them in appearance, but completely hollow inside. Take the metaphor on face value, and then some.

In his old age, Karamakate himself struggles to remember his dreams. He vaguely remembers his ancestors, the Cohiuano; who are the extinct Amazonian tribe, exterminated by the rubber barons.  Then he discovers the young explorer has sketched a same, shared dream.  He urges both explorers to leave all their baggage and burdens behind.

“To become a warrior,” Karamakate tells Evan, “every Cohiuano man must leave everything behind and go into the jungle, guided only by his dreams. In that journey, he has to discover, in solitude and silence, who he really is. He has to become a vagabond of dreams. Some get lost and never come back. But those that do, are ready to face whatever may come. Where are they? Where are the chants that mothers used to sing to their babies?  Where are the stories of the elders, the whispers of love, the chronicles of battle? Where have they gone?”

Simply guessing which direction to go, they round another bend in the river; and before them is a towering mountain, the Workshop of the Gods. Atop the peak they find the last yakruna plant on earth.  The young explorer is willing to kill to possess it. In its place, Karamkate makes this offering:

“This is the Medora caapi,” he says, “The most powerful of all. It existed before creation, before the snake descended. It will take you to see her. She is enormous, fearsome. But you must not fear it.  You must let her embrace you. Her embrace will take you to ancient places, where life doesn’t exist, not even its embryo.”

 Evan drinks the caapi, and Karamkate gives the final instructions: ”Give them more than what they asked for. Give them a song. Tell them everything you see … Everything you feel. Come back a whole man.”

With a smoky snort of new creation, the final words are imparted, “You are Cohiuano.”