Ciro Guerra

7.0 Birds of Passage
6.5 Waiting for the Barbarians
7.2 Embrace of the Serpent

Ciro Guerra (Colombia, 1981)

Wandering Shadows (2004)

The Wind Journeys (2009)

El Abrazo de la Serpiente/ Embrace of the Serpent (2015), shot in black and white, has two protagonists: an aging anachronistic shaman, who represents an extinct form of humanity, and capitalist greed, that values profit over everything else. The shaman is a reluctant survivor, a survivor who despises the exterminators but has done nothing to stop them, who lives alone far from his people, immune from the madness of the white invaders. Like its noble predecessor, Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, this film is an investigation of white madness, but viewed from the eyes and the words of a victim of that madness. The shaman is the tour guide of this Dante-esque journey into hell. He takes his revenge by pretending that he trusts the white man when in facts he simply wants to take the white man into the ultimate "trip" that will show the white man what he has been missing all his life.

In 1909 in the jungle of Amazonia a young man, Manduca, rows his boat to the place where a shaman lives alone. He begs the naked shaman, Karamakate, to help his German friend Theodor, who is lying almost unconscious in the boat. The shaman initially refuses to help a white man, but changes his mind when the white man mumbles that a tribe still exists. The shaman accepts to take the white man to the place where a miraculous plant grows if and only if the white man is not lying about that tribe.
The film then fast-forwards by one generation. In 1940 another white man, this time from the USA, Evan, visits the same shaman, still naked but now much older, asking about the same sacred plant, yakruna, of which he has read in a book published in Germany after Theodor died. Evan introduces himself as a plant scientist. The book contains a drawing of Karamakate. Evan offers the shaman "a lot" of money, which is actually just three dollar bills. The problem is that the shaman has lost his memory. Karamakate confesses that he is no longer able to hear what the rocks and the trees have to say. He calls himself a "chullachaqui". The old Karamakate accepts to help the young white man perhaps because he hopes to restore his memory.
The film now rewinds in time to Theo's jungle trip. The shaman treats Theo with a medication that restores his senses only temporarily. He tells Theo that they must respect the forest or they will never arrive, and this involves eating neither meat nor fish. They stop at a friendly village where Theo entertains the children but the following day the village chief steals his compass. Theo demands that he returns it and eventually just grabs it from him. The shaman is not amused that the white man wants to keep his knowledge and leave the jungle tribes in ignorance. Later the shaman tells Theo to dump his heavy belongings that risk killing him but he refuses because they are the only proof of what he learned in those four years of travel. To avoid the rapids, they have to carry the boat through the forest and they stumble into a graveyard. Manduca discovers the cuts in the tree of the rubber collectors and goes mad, cursing the rubber that is destroying the lifestyle of the jungle villages and killing many of them. Manduca kicks all the buckets left at the bottom of the trees to collect the rubber. A man runs out of the woods screaming. One of his arms has been cut. He runs to save the buckets, desperate to save his livelihood. But then the man begs Manduca to kill him: the rubber barons will torture him for the rest of his life. Manduca grabs the gun and almost kills him for real in front of a terrified Theo. The shaman is now hostile to Theo because he is a white man and the shaman views all white men as thieves; but he changes his tone when Theo shows him a drawing he made based on a dream: the shaman dreamed the same magic diagram. We hear Theo in describe in German his torment, written in his diary to his wife, as he fears that he has failed and that his colleagues were right in criticizing his trip. Theo and the shaman begin to bond. Karamakate explains the concept of chullachaqui, the hollow doppelganger that each person has. They arrive at a mission. A friar is singing with the children. When they appear, he sends the children away and grabs a gun, terrified that they might be after the rubber. Theo talks to him in Latin and gets his trust. The friar is alone, taking care of the orphans of the rubber war. The other friars left two years earlier and never returned. Theo explains that he is an ethnographer. The friar looks like a good man, but at night he reveals his sadistic persona: he flogs the children at will. Manduca stops him and knocks him out unconscious, but then the three don't know what to do with the children. They will be killed by the robber barons if they are left alone there, but the boat doesn't have enough food for them. They leave without the children.
The film returns to the second expedition. Karamakate is rowing the boat into the jungle and they enter an eerie territory: there are man crucified high on the trees, their bodies already desiccated. They are seized by hooded men who take them to the mission. The mission is no longer a place for children. Adults live in it, and they worship a self-appointed messiah, a sadistic madman who forces them to commit suicide and to flog themselves. Karamakate cures his sick wife and the messiah celebrates the event with an orgy, but Karamakate pours a drug into their drink so that they fall unconscious one after the other while the messiah invites them to eat his body. Evan and Karamakate elope. Karamakate refuses to continue with all his luggage. Evan accepts to throw away all his suitcases and boxes except one: it contains a grammophone that plays Haydn's "Creation".
Back to the first expedition, Theo wakes up delirious and decides to throw away Karamakate's superstitions. He jumps in the river, catches a fish and eats it alive. Later he is taken by convulsions, and Karamakate refuses to help him. Manduca explains to the shaman that this white man is their only hope. He saved Manduca's life by buying his freedom from a rubber plantation. And he is respected by white people so Manduca thinks that Theo can help them against the rubber barons. They reach a village where people are drunk with yakruna. Determined to preserve the secret of his people, Karamakate burns the sacred plant. Manduca drags the terminally-ill Theo as the rubber barons are coming and the villagers are fleeing for their lives. Presumably, this is how Theo died.
We see a jaguar and a snake in the jungle. The old shaman still says that he doesn't remember the way and cannot help Evan, but Evan now has become a man of the jungle and points the way. They reach a giant mountain. At the top the shaman shows him the last plant of yakruna: he knows it is the last one because he destroyed all the others. Evan confesses that he came to steal the yakruna to make a better kind of rubber and pulls out a knife. But the shaman doesn't care: he is willing to die.Evan cannot kill him. Karamakate cooks a special drug made of the yakruna that gives Evan the ultimate cosmic understanding of the jungle. The film turns into a mystical hallucination (and finally the first color images). Presumably, this is also the end of the last plant of yakruna. In the morning Evan wakes up alone. Karamakate has abandoned him.
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