At the beginning of the 20th century, the ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg arrived in the Amazon intending to study its indigenous people. A few dozen years later, the North American biologist Richard Evan Schultes appeared in the jungle to study plants used by the same indigenous population. These two true stories are the point of departure for Embrace of the Serpent, a film by the 34-year-old Colombian director Ciro Guerra. Using these two scientists as a framework, Guerra fictionalizes the history of a forgotten indigenous community, including how the last member of the tribe embarked on important journeys, first in his youth with Koch-Grünberg and later when much older with Schultes.
The film, which won the biggest prize at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight and has left American critics breathless with praise, relays the same magnificent spirit of the jungle as in Werner Herzog‘s classic Fitzcarraldo, but this time tells its story from the indigenous perspective. It’s a film that’s constantly on the move through this vast, sacred jungle—a sort of psychedelic road trip by canoe—that deals with the history of colonial oppression, religion, and madness. What makes Guerra’s film so moving and unique is how well it captures the immensity of the jungle and the incredible lives of the people who have existed there for centuries.
Vice spoke with Guerra over Skype as the director was preparing to travel from Colombia to Sundance to present Embrace of the Serpent before it opens at select theaters in the United States.
Embrace of the Serpent will be released by Oscilloscope Laboratories at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York on Wednesday, February 17, 2016 , and at Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles on Friday, February 19, 2016, with a national rollout to follow.