The Reel Review


This is the adventure of a shaman, the sole survivor of his tribe, who serves as the Amazon River guide for two scientists – first, in 1909 for a deathly-ill German, and again in 1940, for an American – both of whom are seeking a rare plant with mystical healing powers. This fictional 2015 Oscar-nominated story is based on the real life diaries of scientists Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes.

Antonio Bolivar in Embrace of the Serpent.

Shot mostly in black and white, the hypnotic, slow moving film is a somber tribute to the vanishing indigenous cultures of the Amazon, examining the devastating affects of colonialism by rubber companies and Catholic missionaries. Co-writer/director Ciro Guerra fills his saga with stunning, dream-like cinematography, a haunting, mystical score and surprisingly strong performances by non-professional local actors Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar as younger and older versions of the shaman Karamakate. The parallel, Iliad-styled journeys with the scientists,  portrayed by Jan Biljvoet (In Darkness, Peaky Blinders) and Brionne Davis, vividly display the horrors of colonialism, conjuring up images of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

From left: Yauenkü Migue, Jan Bijvoet and Nilbio Torres in Embrace of the Serpent.

Embrace of the Serpent is a subtle, matter-of-fact story that requires attention and patience to be truly appreciated. Those who take the time will be rewarded with a mystical, unforgettable glimpse into a bygone era.


• Ironically, Antonio Bolivar, who played the older version of the lone survivor of his tribe in the film, was among the first indigenous people in the Amazonian port town of Leticia diagnosed with COVID-19. He died on April 30th, just four days after being admitted to Leticia’s public hospital, where 30 doctors and nurses recently had resigned to protest months of nonpayment and a lack of basic medical equipment – including a simple device to measure the oxygen levels in patients’ blood.

• In 2016, Embrace of the Serpent became the first Colombian film to be nominated for an Oscar, in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Theodor Koch-Grunberg and local tribespeople during one of his trips to the Amazon in the early 1900s.

• During its release, a special screening of Embrace of the Serpent was held in a makeshift cinema in the Colombian jungle to a packed, standing room only audience, where it was praised by those from the various tribes who attended.

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