Embrace of the Serpent is inspired by the travel journals of Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872-1924), a German ethnologist and explorer, and Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), an American biologist considered the father of modern ethnobotany. The film imagines their parallel journeys, decades apart, seeking the yakruna, a sacred healing plant. This miraculous cure-all is a hallucinogen that attaches itself to rubber trees.
Reversing the perspective of more familiar movies, such as Fitzcarraldo and The Mission, “Embrace of the Serpent’s snaky crawl up the river investigates imperialism’s cultural pollution from the inside out, with the mystical Karamakate as a reluctant tour guide in two time periods.” The literary equivalent is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Embrace of the Serpent is photographed in shimmering black and white.
The film offers two little insights for the photographer. The Koch-Grunberg character travels with a plate camera and a sequence shows him washing a glass plate in the river. Decades later the Schultes character carries a twin lens reflex – it looks like a Mamiya C3, but if so it’s an anachronism as the 1940s setting predates that model.