Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace of the Serpent ★★★★

Assembled as a duplex of complementary and thematically symmetrical narrative strands akin to the double helix of DNA, Embrace Of The Serpent forms an intricate and evocative picture that is both a celebration of the native tribes dwelling in the Amazonian rain forest and a harsh indictment of the Western civilization which has been methodically forcing these ancient cultures to the brink of extinction.

In agreement with this analogy, the filmmakers divide their time and attention almost equally between allowing the viewer to establish an intimate connection with the character of Karamakate – a shaman and the last of his tribe – which enables rudimentary understanding of the way of life of the natives, and firmly pointing the finger at the damage inflicted upon this region of the world by the white colonists. In fact, even though the film is built to sustain a balanced approach, as the camera frequently cuts away to beautiful vistas and focuses on delineating in scrupulous detail the simplicity and innate wisdom of a life led according to the rhythm of the natural world, as the two narratives slowly unfold the evidence showing just how destructive the intrusion of the Western way of life upon this part of the world has been over the centuries of colonization eventually upsets the balance and turns the story into a rousing sermon.

Between the images of degradation of the rain forest, harm inflicted upon the indigenous people by missionaries converting them to Christianity and introduction of extreme violence, it is truly impossible not to see the madness, greed and hubris of the people who traveled across the ocean to these lands and were utterly indifferent to how the world they were exploring and eventually conquering had been built. They stepped off their boats and – like a bull in a china shop – proceeded to impose their own way of life without ever stopping to consider that they would be destroying something precious and singular. They brought their god, technology and greed with them and boldly claimed the land for themselves.

All this is unveiled in the two trips separated by three decades as the protagonists make their way through the jungle in search of a rare plant, <yakruna. As the disturbing images of violence and disrespect to this land fade in and out of the frame, the filmmakers eventually allow this experience to coalesce around a notion it is all caused by the fact that the Western world has somehow lost its connection to nature in the pursuit of civilizational advancement and dominance over the environment. They boldly suggest that we have become a cancerous tumor growing on this planet and we can cure ourselves by finding that long lost connection. We need to find a way to admire simple things like flowers, butterflies, rain and the wind without trying to understand them because understanding is a form of dominance, an exercise of power that’s completely unnatural and exclusive to humans. Embrace Of The Serpent is a signal that our way of life built upon violence and greed is doomed in the long run and that we should pay close attention to people we dismiss as savages because they have been around for much longer than we think and perhaps there is a reason why they haven’t developed in a way that we have. They are acutely aware of nature’s pulse and in order for us to find it we have to first collectively calm down; otherwise we will perish together with the world we are so busy transforming to service our short-sighted desires.

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