In El Abrazo de la Serpiente, Colombian director Ciro Guerra takes us on a journey into the Colombian Amazon, revealing the sublimity of nature and unearthing a part of the country’s history long forgotten. Isabel Rudgley
Principally, the interest surrounding El Abrazo de la Serpiente has arisen from its being the first Colombian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. However, its importance runs much deeper than this. The film, shot almost entirely in an ethereal black and white, and accompanied by a beautifully unsettling soundtrack, reflects the mystery and mysticism of the Amazon. Guerra transports us deep into the rainforest, and tells us a story like none before, opening our eyes to a very important, yet forgotten part of Colombian history. It honours indigenous culture and gives a voice to those often left voiceless: the indigenous populations.
The plot of El Abrazo de la Serpiente takes us along two parallel journeys down the Amazon river, both journeys embarked upon with the objective of finding the sacred plant Yakruna. Based on real diary entries, the film documents the adventures of two scientists, Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes, who are both accompanied by Karamakate, a lone survivor of an Amazonian tribe. Each journey focusses on the complex relationship between indigenous tradition and external influence, and the uncomfortable realities of colonialism become apparent. The different time periods are entwined by the river, being an ancient symbol of time and the circle of life. We watch human stories of identity, community, and friendship – found in the most unexpected of places – develop throughout the film.
Aesthetically, El Abrazo de la Serpiente is a masterpiece. It is a sensory experience, and as the audience we too embark upon a surreal journey, immersed in the majesty of the Amazon. The richness of the sounds of nature and the immensity of the rainforest that surrounds us transports us deep into the Amazon, and as a result, we feel the overwhelming power of nature. The use of black and white evokes the photography of past expeditions and imbues the film with a documentary feel. The serenity of these colours is broken just once, by the hallucination provoked by the plant Caapi. In this scene we join the scientist Schultes in a sequence of surreal colour, in which Karamakate teaches us too to see the world in a totally different light.
The importance of El Abrazo de la Serpiente lies not only in its profound visual beauty, but also in the tribute it pays to indigenous languages, cultures and traditions. Guerra says this of the film’s objective: “The explorers have already told their story, the indigenous haven’t. This is it.” It is this shift of perspective that makes the film so interesting and original. An indigenous character as a film’s protagonist is a rarity, if not almost unheard of, so it provides us with ethnographic insight into the peoples residing in the Colombian Amazon. Guerra shines a light on these communities, which are normally undervalued and marginalised by the rest of society. Interestingly, this respect and recognition of indigenous culture extends further than the cinema screen, and the production of the film was carried out with this attitude in mind. The team working on El Abrazo de la Serpiente worked hand in hand with indigenous communities and received spiritual protection from shamans throughout the filming process.
Despite not winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, El Abrazo de la Serpiente symbolises an important victory for Colombia; it presents a part of its historic and cultural heritage rarely seen in the mainstream, and looks at indigenous tradition in a contemporary context. Additionally, it has paved the way for the future of Colombian cinema on a world stage. With this in mind, El Abrazo de la Serpiente represents far more than just an Oscar nomination.
Header image Youtube