The Colombian feature Embrace of the Serpent is in varying parts an anticolonial screed, an exploration of the “noble savage” concept and a mystical trip down the river into self-knowledge.
Shot in bracing black and white, it nevertheless unfolds like a troubling fever dream, a response that South American rivers seem to bring out in imaginative filmmakers (Herzog, for one, who’s an obvious influence here).
Director Ciro Guerra is enraged by the depredations to his homeland caused by the European rubber trade, even as he laments the cost of imperialism to its perpetrators, who, in his view, have sold their souls for things that aren’t worth having.
The movie interweaves two river voyages by Western explorers — loosely based on real people — separated in time but linked in that both were led by the same native, a shaman named Karamakate who believes himself to be the last of his tribe. Both men search for a rare plant, here fictitiously called yakruna, that creates profound visions in those who consume it.
The earlier trip involves German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg, who in the first two decades of the 20th century visited and described the tribes he encountered. The other Westerner is an American, based on botanist Richard Evans Schultes, who specialized in hallucinogenic plants and knows the work of Koch-Grünberg.
Only with the greatest reluctance does the young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), who despises the whites for their cruelty and inability to recognize the wisdom of nature, agree to help Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet). The native man is fearsome, built like a warrior and with a commanding demeanor. The German explorer is sickly and rail thin, but convinces Karamakate that he is not like other Westerners, and what’s more may be able to guide him to surviving members of his tribe.
Accompanying the German is a native guide (Yauenku Miguee) who earns Karamakate’s scorn because of his loyalty to the foreigner, but makes the case that not all Europeans are malicious.
By the time Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar) agrees to accompany the American (Brionne Davis), he is an old man who senses that his powers are fading — his memories are unclear, and he can no longer interpret pictograms from long ago. He points out the absurdity of the Westerner’s packing huge amounts of gear in the jungle, more gently than he did decades earlier with the German.
As both river voyages unfold, stops along the way (a la Apocalypse Now) mean hard lessons will be learned. We see the horrific cruelty of working conditions on the rubber plantations; in another, a mission school for native children is shown as a hellhole. Some of these sequences have a didactic air.
(Spoilers in this paragraph.) Near the end, the film, surprisingly, indulges in an old-school psychedelic scene of colorful and supposedly mind-blowing abstractions. Not a good decision by the filmmaker. The same goes for an overwrought scene involving a demented would-be Christ.
Putting aside these misfires, the film largely maintains its haunting, visionary sensibility, conveying glimmers and hints of a different way of knowing the world. The double time frame helps make the case. It’s also quite moving to see the contrast between the two Karamakates, who are truly the movie’s center. Showing him in his declining years broadens and complicates what in a lesser filmmaker’s hands would have been a conventional portrayal of the uncorrupted aboriginal man.
Creating this kind of otherworldly mood takes exceptional talent, and this is a film worth experiencing.
Embrace of the Serpent was Colombia’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
In Spanish, French, German and several Colombian tribal languages with English subtitles
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; Angelika Plano; opens at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth April 8
Embrace of the Serpent
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Ciro Guerra
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar
Running time: 125 min.