Thursday 20 April: Embrace Of The Serpent (12)

Columbia/Venezuela/Argentina  –  Drama  –  Year: 2015  –  Running time: 125 mins
Languages: Spanish/Portuguese/Aboriginal/German/Catalan/Latin/English

Audience response following the screening of this film:
Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.077 from 13 responses)

  • ‘Excellent’: 5 votes
  • ‘Very Good’: 4 votes
  • ‘Good’: 4 votes
  • ‘Satisfactory’: 0 votes
  • ‘Poor’: 0 vote

Read the comments here or visit our Embrace Of The Serpent discussion page.


As a last minute replacement for our scheduled presentation, Tangerines, we screened this acclaimed Docu-Drama, based on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes. It tells the true story of the relationship between Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his people, and the two scientists who work together over the course of 40 years to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant.

A film that honours the mysteries and majesty of a lost world.
Demetrios Matheou (Sight and Sound magazine)

Director: Ciro Guerra
The Wind Journeys (2009) / Wandering Shadows (2004)
Nilbio Torres                             …  Young Karamakate
Jan Bijvoet                               …  Theo
Antonio Bolivar                        …  Old Karamakate
Brionne Davis                          …  Evan
Yauenkü Migue                        …  Manduca
(for full cast, and more information, see “Embrace Of The Serpent” in IMDB)

CFC Film notes:

Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent is a legitimate stunner, a river-trip that will mesmerize and jack with you, leaving you not quite certain, at its end, how to go about the rest of your day. The film is beautiful and ferocious, calm and torrential, a plunge into the ol’ heart of darkness and then some organ darker still. It’s both an adventure movie — one as hardy and demanding as The Revenant but less preening about it — and a thorough brief on the horrors that civilization has wrought upon indigenous peoples. With a clever double-journey narrative that spans the first half of the twentieth century, Guerra traces the devastating impact of white interlopers upon Amazonian tribes across generations. It’s Apocalypse Then…and Later.

That’s not to say it’s without its pleasures. Much of the film is given to gliding along South America’s great rivers in handmade canoes. The cameras of cinematographer David Gallego skim right along with the travelers, and we behold the marvels of South America in crisp, black-and-white widescreen. The drift of these journeys is seductive, irresistible, an aesthetic choice that gets at the moral complexities at play: We want to row deeper in, to see this hidden world and its people, despite knowing that the last thing they need is outsiders, well-meaning or not. When things and people go rotten, as they must, Guerra gets pedantic about it, even over the top, but that’s hard to gainsay. What use is it, after all, to insist that artists depict the eradication of native cultures with reserve?

Almost every moment of cross-cultural understanding or pristine wild beauty is tinged with hints of corruption, with the sense that Theodor’s very presence on this river will hasten its doom. He worries, early on, that the tribe that has stolen his compass will, as a consequence, lose its unique traditional methods of navigation, but he seems to harbor no such concern for the results of the work of a missionary encountered downstream. He doesn’t worry over the conversion of souls until that work grows violent. In a hard-to-shake set piece, native children who have been rescued from the rubber plantations sing hymns in immaculate vestments — but then also suffer, at the hands of the priest, the kind of treatment the Romans visited upon his lord. Guerra is as unstinting with brutality as he is generous with beauty.

That mission sequence is a linchpin to the film’s secondary narrative. In the 1940s, a second white explorer (Brionne Davis), this one American, also passes that way, also in search of the fabled yakruna plant, and also — we come to realize — led by a wiser Karamakate (played in this timeline by Antonio Bolivar). The decades have made life at that mission more perverse than it already was, a telephone-game of biblical misinterpretation at the end of the world, with the priest’s zeal and a parody of his doctrine meeting the strongman cruelty of the rubber barons. The best of civilization is represented in Embrace of the Serpent by that second yakruna-hunter’s beaten-up phonograph, with which he wows even Karamakate by spinning Haydn; the worst of civilization is there not just in the invaders’ greed and duplicity but in the lesson of them, and in the unintended consequences of even their generous actions.

(review by Alan Scherstuhl Village Voice, February 16, 2016)

Selected UK reviews:

Observer (Mark Kermode) 
Spectator (Deborah Ross)
Little White Lies (Matthew Thrift)



We always welcome audience comments on the films we have shown, please add your comments to the blog below:

Audience Feedback for “Embrace of the Serpent”

Due to circumstances beyond our control, we were unable to obtain our planned film, “Tangerines” but we were able to screen the acclaimed docu-drama, “Embrace of the Serpent”, in its place.  As it only became apparent on the afternoon of … Continue reading