Any self-respecting film nerd knows that a movie about the colonization of the Amazon will inevitably find itself held up against Werner Herzog’s 1972 masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The German director’s peculiar do or die guerrilla spirit, along with Klaus Kinski’s operatic turn as a megalomaniacal madman in search of a city of gold have made the film an essential point of reference for filmmakers and cinephiles alike (not to mention all the tasty chisme surrounding the production, complete with gunshots and death threats.) But one thing is glaringly absent from Herzog’s parable of European colonization, greed, and the delusional thirst for power: the perspective of the indigenous people who quietly carry the expedition supplies through the rugged jungle terrain, or who menacingly stalk the would-be conquerers from beyond the river’s edge.
So, when critically-acclaimed Colombian director Ciro Guerra was inspired to explore the peculiar culture and history of his country’s sparsely populated Vaupés department, in the Amazon jungle’s northwest fringes, he decided to take Herzog’s legacy head-on. El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent), which will premiere this May at Cannes’ parallel competition Director’s Fortnight, follows two scientists and explorers — one American, the other German — as they penetrate deep into the Colombian Amazon, meeting up along the way with a solitary indigenous man who claims to be the last of his tribe.
In a recent interview Guerra admitted that, much like his fellow countrymen, he knew very little about the Amazonian region of Colombia when he set out to make this film, despite the fact that it occupies a huge swath of the national territory. His desire to explore the region’s history in film led him to discover the true story of Richard Evan Schultes and Theodor Koch-Grunburg, the two previously mentioned adventurers, which ultimately laid the foundation for El abrazo de la serpiente.
But unlike Herzog’s Eurocentric vision, the indigenous experience is front and center in Guerra’s feature, a fact we can appreciate in the film’s action-packed black-and-white trailer. Set against the expansive backdrops of the Amazonian lowlands, Guerra captures the natural beauty of the rainforest through impeccable, naturally-lit camera work, as we watch the two explorers immerse themselves into the world of indigenous spirituality. Things come to a head when Spanish monks and rapacious rubber tappers begin to encroach on the native’s way of life, and peaceful coexistence gives way to violence and destruction.
With El abrazo de la serpiente it seems Guerra understands that it’s one thing to show the messianic madness of European conquerers, but an entirely different thing to show the real effects their conquests had on the original inhabitants of the Americas.