Telling the store of Amazonian shaman Karamakate and the two different white men he leads through the wild jungles of modern-day Colombia, Embrace of the Serpent is a facts-based story inspired by the journals of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes, the two men who were led by Karamakate decades apart to find a sacred plant called the yakruna.
It takes a short while to get in to the film and the jumps from the past to present are initially disorienting, once the characters, setting and timing are all set and you’re able to concentrate solely on the story, Embrace of the Serpent proves itself to be an engrossing, often disturbing and surprisingly educational film.
Having been raised in Canada, we all inevitably know the story of the French and English settlers who stole the land from the Indigenous peoples and how Aboriginal rights are, to this day, a hot topic with seemingly simple solutions that no one seems to be willing to commit to. But what we often don’t get to hear about is the fact that Europeans did the same thing throughout the Americas, to all the Indigenous peoples, and that includes those in Latin America.
The colonization of Colombia, as we see in the film, is very similar to European colonization anywhere else. They find cocoa and the means to create rubber and ravish the land to make a profit, much to the chagrin of the land’s native residents. Just like European colonization anywhere else, the Natives were considered barbaric and were greatly misunderstood simply because of their very differing ways of life. We see the schools where Christian priests groom young Native children (almost exclusively boys) in the ways of European religion and culture, banning them from keeping in touch with their heritage.
Karamakate, we learn, was one such child who had been “rescued” after his parents were killed fighting off colonizers. He teaches a small group of boys about some of their traditions and reminds them never to forget where they come from, but when one of the boy rats the others out, the priest physically punishes the children for breaking the rules. Karamakate returns to the same school decades later with Evans Schultes and finds it totally changed and still not for the better.
The parallels of Karamakate’s two journeys with these scientists is vivid and engaging. Where at the turn of the century, when he led Koch-Grunberg, Karamakate was bold, wise and angry at the invasion of his people’s land, 30 years later he is deflated and losing his memory to old age, but still bold and admirable when it comes to his beliefs.
Embrace of the Serpent is one of those movies that surprises you—at least, it surprised me. I didn’t expect to be so engaged in a film about a trek through the Amazonian jungle, and I especially didn’t expect to enjoy a film about two treks through the same jungle, led by the same man. But I’m glad I was surprised and I’m glad I enjoyed this movie not only because it’s well-made and interesting enough on its own, but because it brings to life a part of Aboriginal history that we in North America are often unaware of. But we should be aware of it for it’s only with knowledge of all the wrongs done can we begin to properly make amends.