The Embrace of the Serpent is not a light-hearted, “I’m in the mood for a movie and some popcorn tonight” kind of film. It’s dark and heavy and scary and, as some critics have said, is at times reminiscent of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now.
The film follows Karamakate, one of the last members of the Cohiuano tribe in the Colombian Amazon. Over the course of his lifetime, two men — Theo and Evan — come to him seeking a specific plant known for its healing properties, yakruna. As Karamakate travels through the Amazon, guiding his companions toward this sacred plant, we see the heart-breaking and disastrous effects of colonization, greed, war, violence, religious domination, and slavery on peoples of the Amazon.
There’s a deep, deep, deep history here in this film that my short post and limited understanding won’t do justice to. Some of the scenes are very disturbing, including a moment when Manduca, Theo’s traveling partner and who was previously a slave on a rubber planation, debates ending another person’s life to put him out of his misery. No one should have to live like this, he says.
When we meet Karamakate, he is so filled with rage. Against Theo. Against Manduca. Against everything. His entire world has been erased by the greed of white people. It’s hard to tell if he’s more skeptical of Theo or Manduca, who he sees as a traitor to his people. And yet, as they spend more and more time together, the tensions and anger never go away, but the humanity beneath each individual becomes clear. Theo is not like the other whites Karamakate has encountered. He has power and privilege and arms and all of that, but he is also there to learn.
Which, in that sense, is a good metaphor for ally-ship in general: recognizing your own power and complicity in the reigning status quo and learning about experiences that differ from yours. Manduca repeats to Karamakate in the movie that they need Theo. Without Theo sharing his knowledge and what he’s learned from these two men, Manduca says, their cultures will be destroyed completely.
As an anthropologist, it was interesting to watch the role of an early ethnographer. There is an inevitable concern in Anthropology with regards to who is doing the observing versus the agency of the observed. On the one hand, learning about other cultures is beneficial in a world so large. At the same time, colonization and Anthropology have often gone hand in hand in a way where likely good-intentioned ethnographers further perpetuated existing power dynamics.
One of my favorite scenes is when Theo shows his compass to one of the local tribes they encounter. As they’re leaving, Theo realizes his compass is missing and the leader, eventually, confesses that he took it. Theo is adamant about not leaving the compass behind because, as he says, their navigational system is based on astronomy. Leaving the compass means they will potentially lose that knowledge forever. Karamakate, observing the whole interaction, reminds Theo that you can’t prevent people from learning. Knowledge belongs to everyone — you can’t learn in one direction.
I’ve seen some reviews that tackle the limited expression of The Embrace of the Serpent, particularly in terms of the diversity of characters and storyline. I agree that there is an element of clichéd storytelling in relation to the white male researcher attempts to befriend native healer/guide. At the same time, there are moments in the movie where we view Theo from Karamakate’s perspective and Karamakate is the main driving force in the entire film which is, definitely, a positive. We don’t often see history told or shown from this perspective.
It’s complex and complicated. It’s cinematically gorgeous. It gets in your head. Hopefully, it makes you dig deeper to learn more. To read from the perspective of the colonized. To understand the dark history here. To learn, in both directions.