Beautiful, strange, disturbing, “Embrace of the Serpent” is a film with a lot on its mind. Set in Colombia’s Amazonian jungle and a foreign language Oscar finalist, it’s simultaneously a lament, a warning and a celebration of the lost and destroyed tribes of that region, “all the people we will never know.”
Those words come from director and co-writer (with Jacques Toulemonde) Ciro Guerra, who, along with cinematographer David Gallego, has crafted a strikingly photographed black-and-white epic that intertwines a passionate attack on the depredations of invasive capitalism with a potent adventure story about not one but two trips down that river into a Conradian heart of darkness.
Separated by 40 years, each trip features a different Western scientist, one German and one American, each accompanied by the same native shaman, Karamakate (played, because of the age gap, by two different actors). Both men are looking for the same thing, the sacred psychedelic Yakruna plant, but “Embrace of the Serpent” is not a film about destinations but one that involves us in journeys in the most intimate way.
Described in the media notes as both the first Colombia film to feature an indigenous protagonist and the first to be shot in that country’s Amazon in more than 30 years, “Embrace” is a deep dive into another place and time as well as a different, non-Western way of experiencing reality.
The film slips so elegantly between its two time frames that it sometimes seems that we are watching one journey doubling back on itself in a magical realism kind of way. Everything that happens is taken as a sign that points to a bond between the jungle and the unknown that is always disorienting and occasionally even terrifying.
The first journey begins in 1909 with the barely clad, enormously fit shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) sensing a disturbance in the force. It soon appears: a small boat carrying a seriously ill European named Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his guide, a conventionally dressed native named Manduca (Yauenku Miguee).
Karamakate at first angrily refuses to assist one of the toxic, pale-skinned individuals even though Manduca describes Theo as “a wise man who has come to learn.” But fearing as he does that he is the last of his tribe, Karamakate agrees to help out, under strict conditions, when he discovers that the white man might know where some fellow survivors are.
Though he is nominally their guide, the outraged Karamakate couldn’t be more different than the docile Manduca. When, for instance, Theo expresses qualms about leaving a compass with a local tribe because it might lead to the end of native navigational techniques, the shaman snaps “you cannot forbid them to learn. Knowledge belongs to all men.”
And when on their next stop the horrors that rubber plantations brought to the area are revealed, Karamakate all but screams in one of the film’s nine languages, “You devour everything, you bring hell and death to earth.”
Worse, however, is yet to come when the two men stumble on a nearly deserted mission and sample the horrors that religion has left behind.
When American Evan (played by Brionne Davis and modeled on Richard Evans Schultes) returns to these waters decades later in an attempt to retrace Theo’s steps, Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar Salvador) is still in the river and willing to help, though he claims he can’t really remember where he is going. When Evan says he has devoted his life to plants, Karamakate pithily replies, “That’s the most reasonable thing I ever heard a white man say.”
“They are just things,” the shaman insists to both men. “Your things will lead you to death and madness.”
When described in mere words, “Embrace of the Serpent” may sound similarly intolerant and didactic. However, the magic of Gallego’s black-and-white photography, the twisty back and forth nature of the proceedings and the charisma of the actors who play the two Karamakates keep this angry, poetic film an unsettling journey all the way to the end.