Embrace of the Serpent opens with the image of an Amazonian shaman, Karamakate, dressed in the authentic dress of his people. The man peers out over the river and quickly stands up as if he senses something. Then, a long boat pulls in between the trees with two men on board. Karamakate urges the two men to turn around and leave, but the boat continues to move closer and closer. Then, Karamakate pulls out a weapon and threatens the strangers to leave this place immediately. The audience can sense Karamakate’s tension and distrust of these travellers. Regardless of his warnings, the men do not stop, and the boat pulls ashore.
One man, Manduca, appears to be a native of the Amazon, but he is dressed in what Karamakate describes as “white man clothes.” Manduca refers to the second man, a white scientist from Germany named Theo, as his travel partner, and describes Theo’s rapidly weakening state. Karamakate is resistant to the new men, but his interest is peaked when Theo tells him there are still members of his tribe alive in another part of the jungle. The three men eventually set out on a journey, to find a sacred healing plant that they believe will rid Theo of his illness, and to find Karamakate’s people.
The audience is unaware of exactly what time period the film is set in, but the director provides clues in the form of discussions about white rubber barons coming into the forest and forcing the indigenous people into slavery in order to capitalize on the forest’s rubber trees.
The director skillfully focuses the audience’s attention on the impact the colonization is having on the indigenous people by concentrating on the journey of the men. Each time the men pull onto a riverbank to collect supplies, take a break, or camp for the evening, they meet someone different. With each interaction, the audience gains more insight into the horrors the indigenous people are facing due to the rubber barons, and we learn more about why Karamakate distrusts everyone. At one point, the three men arrive at a mission. This part was particularly interesting and disturbing because these people were stripped of their culture and forced into European practices. The mission consists only of young boys who are wearing white robes and not allowed to speak their native language. It was extremely sad to see all of these boys, taken from their parents at a young age, and forced to forget about their past.
After a while, a second story is skillfully woven into the movie’s plot. This story takes place several years later and involves Karamakate and another white man named Evan. Evan is following the diaries of Theo in order to find the same sacred plant Theo needed to cure his sickness. This second story is even more gut wrenchingly sad than the first, because Evan finds Karamakate in the same place that Theo and Manduca found him, only many years have passed, and Karamakate is still alone. It is clear that Karamakate’s memory is fading as he cannot tell Evan any details about his first trip with Theo and Manduca. But he agrees to help Evan find his way to the sacred plant.
As these two follow the same pathway that Karamakate took many years before with Theo and Manduca, the audience is horrified to discover the lasting impact that the colonization has had on the Amazonian cultures. The most disturbing part of this story occurred when the two men arrived at the mission. They discover that this tribe of people has gone mad from engaging in cannibalism and likely inbreeding given their segregation from others. There are no Europeans left at the mission, so the tribe has taken some of the traditional Christian practices and interpreted them. This includes one man claiming to be Jesus Christ and tribe members forced to commit suicide. This portion of the film left a very powerful image of the horrors that entail when a group of people come into a community, strip them of their history, provide new practices, and then leave them confused and alone.
Until this movie, I had no knowledge about the European invasions of the Amazon to collect rubber, and the impact that this colonization had on the numerous cultures in that part of the world. The film demonstrates the impact on the indigenous people through Karamakate. He is the last remaining member of his tribe. Now, Karamakate has resolved himself to live in solitude where he is engrossed in loneliness. The impact of his solitude is really felt when the movie enters into the second story where Karamakate is the only man, living in the same place, alone, struggling to remember his past, and believing he is merely a shadow of his former self that walks the earth detached from his body. I can imagine many tribes in this region felt a very similar impact on their cultures during this invasion of their land. As their people are killed off, their traditions begin fading with their memories.
In my opinion, the most impactful statement of the whole movie was the dedication at the very end. While these images of death, destruction, and the loss of entire cultures, the director chose to end the film by dedicating the work to the song of those cultures and the songs we will never know. Those words have resonated with my since I saw the film. I am struck with such sadness that entire tribes have been forgotten; it is almost as if they never existed.
I am left thinking about how many times this phenomenon has occurred. Where the world calls for an item, such as rubber, so people invade, kill, and destroy everything in their wake in order to satisfy a desire. This being my first human rights class and my first international law class, this film demonstrated to me, once again, the importance of human rights and the uniting of nations to assure that people are not being stripped of their rights. I always knew that issues like this existed, but I never fully grasped the gravity of some of these events. It is interesting, sometimes it takes a movie based on true events to cause people, like me, to realize how history has a way of repeating itself. If we do not take care and protect people, we will continue to witness travesties such as the ones described in Embrace of the Serpent.
(Cross-posted from Exchange of Notes blog. Read more about the author, Hannah Coleman, here.)