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Film / Embrace of the Serpent

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Embrace of the Serpent is a 2015 film from Colombia, directed by Ciro Guerra.

It tells two different narratives, intertwined throughout the film. In 1909 Karamakate, a tribesman of the Cohiuano people living alone deep in the heart of the Colombian Amazon, meets two newcomers. Theo, a German botanist and explorer who has been studying the wildlife of the Amazon, is desperately ill with malaria. Theo, along with his loyal tribesman assistant Manduca, search for the yakruna, a mysterious plant said to have healing powers which may be able to save Theo's life.

Decades later—the time setting is vague but Word of God specifies 1940—a much older Karamakate meets another white man. An American named Evan comes up the Amazon bearing Theo's journals, which were taken out of the jungle by Manduca, Theo having died in the Amazon back in 1909. Evan asks Karamakate to help him find the yakruna plant—but he has an ulterior motive.

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The common theme of both stories is the devastation wrought on the cultures of the Amazonian rain forest by Western imperialists. The savagery of rubber cultivation also inspired the novel Heart of Darkness, and indirectly its film adaptation Apocalypse Now, which bears thematic similarities to this film.


Tropes:

  • An Arm and a Leg: The 1909 group finds a one-armed slave who goes off in a panic and tries to scoop up the rubber sap that Manduca spilled on the ground. The slave, of course, almost certainly had his arm chopped off by his masters.
  • Berserk Button: The normally placid Manduca goes bonkers when the group comes across a grove of rubber trees under cultivation, and the associated graveyard. He starts screaming and knocks down all the pails of rubber sap. Manduca was once enslaved on a rubber plantation.
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  • Deliberately Monochrome: Shot all in black-and-white, except for a brief hallucinatory sequence near the end shot in color to emphasize its intensity.
  • Evil Imperialist: We don't actually see any, unless the crazed monk raising a little compound of religious zealots counts. But their damage is everywhere. In one scene Manduca stumbles across a little rubber farm with buckets collecting the sap from the rubber trees—and a little graveyard. Then a slave who is missing an arm comes dashing into the grove to collect the rubber sap.
  • Fire Purifies: After discovering that the yakruna is being cultivated instead of growing wild, so people can use it as a drug, an outraged Karamakate sets fire to all of it.
  • Foregone Conclusion: We know quite early that Theo's journey to find the yakruna and save his life failed, as Evan says so in the later story.
  • A God Am I: The unhinged "Messiah", an Ax-Crazy dude who is the leader of the mission in 1940 who wears a crown of thorns and believes himself to be Jesus. At one point he says "The only thing sacred in this jungle is me!" Later his interpretation of the Eucharist turns out be opening his robes and saying "Eat me!"
  • Higher Understanding Through Drugs: In order to give them a higher understanding, Karamakate gives each of the white folks he's escoring doses of caapi, a hallucinogen prepared from the yakruna plant. Theo in 1909 dreams of Karamakate looking as he'll look in 1940, but in general doesn't seem to reach the higher understanding Karamakate is looking for. Evan seems to, however, having a vision that sends him flying over the rain forest before viewing a full-on Mushroom Samba. Whether he actually did attain any enlightenment is still uncertain.
  • Inspired by...: The diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes.
  • Jungles Sound Like Kookaburras: Well of course kookaburras live in the Amazon.
  • The Last DJ: Karamakate is fighting a rearguard battle against the forces of imperialism, guarding his tribe's secrets, refusing to allow the yakruna plant to be used for profit or war. He looks down on Manduca for working for a white man.
  • Ominous Fog: The frightening debauchery of the 1940 orgy sequence at the monastery is accompanied by this.
  • Not So Different: Theo is a scientist, not a greedy imperialist, and generally seems to respect the local tribes. But when he refuses to hand over his compass to a chieftain, nominally because use of a compass would cause the locals to forget their own methods of navigation, Karamakate calls him out for being just as condescending as all the other whites.
  • A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: The festival that the deranged Messiah holds in 1940 deteriorates into this.
  • Sinister Minister: Both visits to the mission in the jungle find one.
    • In 1909, they discover a deranged Spanish priest who is kidnapping local orphan children, dressing them in white robes, and forbidding them to speak their native tongues. They eventually catch him whipping a small boy, one of the boys that Karamakate taught plant cultivation to.
    • In 1940, they find an even crazier one at the now dilapidated mission: He calls himself "the Messiah" and seems to believe he is Jesus Christ incarnate. He's executing people by crucifying them and riddling them with arrows. His followers, children of the mission in 1909, have grown to be deranged zealots themselves.
  • Splash of Color: The whole film is in black and white, except for Evan's brief acid trip, which is in color, and which is rather similar to the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Two different actors play Karamakate some thirty years apart.
  • White Man's Burden: Satirized. A plaque outside the mission commends its founders for bringing civilization to cannibalistic savages. Inside the mission, unspeakable brutalities are going on.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The travelers in 1909 are not happy at all when they find the Spanish monk flogging a child.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: In 1909 Karamakate finds what's left of his people, namely, a few children and some older men sitting around in a hut getting high off cappi.
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