Trip On Ayahuasca In The Oscar-Nominated 'Embrace Of The Serpent'
Truth comes at a premium. The search for truth can eventually strip you of everything you own and hold dear, in exchange for what is real. Ciro Guerra, writer and director of Embrace of the Serpent, holds this sentiment close to the film’s core. Based off of the journals of Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes, Embrace of the Serpent follows the journeys of two western explorers in the Amazon, looking for the sacred “Yakruna” plant. It’s a fictional, psychedelic plant with healing properties, boasting the same qualities as Banisteriopsis Caapi, commonly know as ayahuasca.
As advised by a shaman, the name of the actual plant, ayahuasca, was omitted from the film. “The film has no anthropological value. We were looking for a deeper truth,” states Guerra. It follows two separate timelines; one focusing on the indigenous shaman Karamakate in his youth, and the other focusing on Karamakate’s latter days. The film explores the Amazon during a time in which its indigenous peoples were terrorized by rubber barons and the early days of Christian colonialism.
In 2015, Embrace of the Serpent won the Fortnight Award at the Cannes Film Festival. It was also officially selected to play for the Spotlight section in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Most recently, the film received one of the highest honors bestowed in Hollywood: an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Feature. These heavy accolades come with good reason: it’s a stunningly beautiful film that comes with a real stamp of authenticity. Guerra left no stone unturned in his preparation and production of the film. Except one: the director was advised by a shaman to not “speak to Master Caapi,”—that is, to not drink ayahuasca. “If you do it with something so specific in mind, or a specific purpose, then you get punished,” noted Guerra. Thankfully he listened to the shaman’s advice. The very point of the film is to listen—listen to the river, to the jungle, to the universe as a whole.
Guerra’s magnum opus reminds us of great auteurs of the past, and simultaneously teaches us to leave our baggage at the door, to allow journeys to unfold. “A part of you has to die to learn,” Guerra notes. “The indigenous people compare it to the way serpents change their skin. It’s a painful process that means you will leave parts of you behind.” A poignant notion, especially when you throw in the fact that Serpent‘s protagonist considers himself the descendant of an anaconda that came down from the Milky Way.
Guerra’s initial research led to many dead ends. “At first I was lost. Going up against Amazonian knowledge is like going up against a wall. They don’t believe in the written word.” Thankfully, at some point the Amazon allowed the cast and crew into her embrace. It should be noted that the cast is largely indigenous, another facet that makes Embrace of the Serpent such a monumental accomplishment. “They really know how to listen,” said Guerra. “It’s hard to find an actor who knows how to listen. Once you have that, you are halfway there. They have no hesitation, they have no doubt, they have no self-awareness.” That’s something not many Westerners can grasp, let alone the majority of Hollywood actors.
The film was shot authentically as well. In what would be a nightmare for most directors, it was filmed over an eight week period on location in the Amazon. It was the first feature film in 30 years to do so. “We felt that the jungle was allowing us to make the film. It was opening itself for the film,” said Guerra. While some of the film’s cinematography borders on luck, it seems more like an act of cosmic intervention. When was the last time you had seen multiple shots in a film where people were engulfed by a swarm of butterflies, without CGI?
“They are worried [ayahuasca] has become a commercial thing.”
The film’s climax occurs whilst characters are taking a trip on the fictional “Yakruna” plant, transporting the viewer through a 2001– esque portal. I asked Guerra how he was able to come up with the visuals, when he himself wasn’t able to partake in the experience. “What you see there is the iconography of the Barasana Indians in the Amazon. That’s the way they represent the spiritual world, that’s what they see when they speak to Master Caapi.” Its easy to see how the Western world has been able to bastardize something that was once known as a spiritual quest, turning it into a tourist activity. It’s led many of the Amazonian tribes to stop using ayahuasca. “They are worried it’s become a commercial thing,” Guerra notes. It’s sad to see such a sacred activity overtaken by commerce, but heartening to see a film like Serpent, which honors the customs of indigenous peoples.
As filmgoers today, it is rare to feel fully immersed in a film. But this film does just that—it fully immerses you. You feel as though you have transcended space and time and found yourself in another world. In fact, viewing Embrace of the Serpent is much like submitting yourself to the “Yakruna.” Cosmic in every sense of the word.
Embrace of the Serpent is in theaters now. Tune in to the Oscars this Sunday, February 28th, for more on the film. Get ready for more Ciro Guerra, who just signed a deal to make his first Hollywood film.
Portrait of Ciro Guerra by Steven Stone. All other imagery courtesy of Guerra.
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