You might anticipate that a film set in the Amazon would demand the latest HD color photography in order to properly represent the unfathomable biodiversity of the region. “Embrace of the Serpent” is shot instead in a gorgeous but unexpected black and white. Director Ciro Guerra addresses this filming decision in this interview (around a minute in):
Guerra notes that, upon seeing the Amazon in person, he realized that it would be impossible to replicate that visual experience, the actual colors the forest exhibits, on film. Instead, he chose to film in black and white so that audiences might imagine the visual information he left out, which places a significant amount of trust in his viewers. But Guerra believes that there would be something critical lost in the alternative approach. For Guerra, the Amazon is untranslateable to film; the effort involved in trying to get as close as possible with color photography would be misguided.
And this idea of a fundamental barrier in understanding radiates across the rest of the film. “Embrace of the Serpent” depicts, in two separate time periods, the effects of colonialism on the indigenous peoples of Colombia, using the expeditions of two different men – one from Germany and one from the US – as the vehicles for its portrait. The time periods share only two constants: the Amazon itself and a shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres in his youth and Antonio Bolívar later), who believes himself to be the last member of his tribe. Through this framing, “Embrace of the Serpent” is able to access a breadth of thematic material, some directly and some on the periphery, but all of which orbits the cultural conflicts occurring.
Both of the white men Karamakate encounters are looking for a plant that’s sacred in his culture, and he acts as a reluctant guide. His relationship to the outsiders shifts subtly over the intervening forty years, giving the film a personal perspective alongside its historical and analytic ones. Both his personal and cultural memories are warped as the communities around him are subjugated. But Karamakate’s views are not the only ones represented. Other people from the indigenous societies depicted react to the settlers differently, some embracing them or aiming to benefit from them in some way, which adds a complexity to the conversation that the film encourages. The presence of the two Westerners does this, as well, as both claim to be on journeys motivated by a pursuit of knowledge and cultural exchange. Their scholarly, respectful demeanors disguise a more uncomfortable, patronizing attitude, suggesting a kind of soft imperialism.
This combination of explicit and implicit colonialist forces, of resistance, acceptance, and resignation from indigenous communities, makes for a deep consideration of a process repeated throughout history. As the plot moves among vignettes, the film is often as funny as it is unsettling. Comedic cluelessness among the Westerners plays out next to graphic portraits of violence.
Much of the film explicitly discusses the confrontation of cultures and the brutality enacted by the white colonizers. Both in its visuals and its dialogue, it demands its characters and audience acknowledge the cultural and literal genocide occurring. Karamakate returns frequently to something Guerra explores in his interview, which is that concept of a rudimentary but catastrophic failure in communication. “Embrace of the Serpent” recognizes that there are elements of the human experience that are universal – this is a component of the film’s climax – but it asks viewers to complicate this generalized perspective with the reality of history. The film explores the more challenging but honest admission, which is that there may be characteristics of different societies that are too fundamentally out of sync to be brought to a meeting point. To assert otherwise is not to cross a cultural divide but to obliterate it, as the history and continuing existence of colonialism shows. In these instances, different civilizations are not converging with recognition of each other’s differences in the hopes of finding some sort of respectful middle ground. Instead, one society is denying the other’s sovereignty, its validity, its right to exist.
“Embrace of the Serpent” operates in this mode for most of its runtime, balancing imagery that reflects on the legacy of colonialism with literal discussions of those effects. It asks audiences to intellectualize the experience as it occurs. So when it shifts, in its final moments, to a different register, the effect is essentially indescribable. “Embrace of the Serpent” moves to a completely cinematic language for its conclusion, using abstract visuals and scoring to finish the work it began over the previous two hours, to express those ideas that cannot be put into language, to suggest what kind of knowledge might be lost when an entire culture is extinguished. I don’t know how I would explain those few minutes to someone else other than to say that I was totally overwhelmed. It’s among the most compelling and emotional sequences I’ve seen in the past few years.
I think it’s important to remember, though, that this is not documentary. While elements of it are influenced by real events and people from the early 20th century, its characters, as well as the tribes portrayed, are fictional. Guerra is ultimately representing something parallel to history, something with many similarities to it and something worth considering, but it is a facsimile. Guerra communicates something emotional that can lead viewers to a more thorough study of what influenced his work, which is significant. But it is not a replacement for history itself.