The journey is definitely the destination in Embrace of the Serpent, a haunting meditation on culture, colonialism, and loss which this year became the first film out of Colombia to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Foreign Language category. Shot in captivating black-and-white on location in the remote jungles of the Amazon, it’s an absorbing piece of filmmaking with the power of myth in every frame.
The third film from Colombian director Ciro Guerra, Embrace Of The Serpent is inspired by the published journals of two real-life scientists who visited the Amazon at separate times: Theodor Koch-Grunberg came from Germany at the turn of the 20th century, followed by American Richard Evans Schultes some 40 years later. Each man recorded what he found in words and drawings, and their journals have become the only documented evidence we have left of several indigenous Amazonian cultures that have long since vanished.
Filmmaker Guerra decides to combine these two stories by inventing a character both expeditions have in common: the shaman Karamakate. A young man when Grunberg arrives in 1909, Karamakate is the last of his people after Europeans destroyed his village in their insatiable lust to harvest rubber from the region. An older, crankier Karamakate is no more impressed with “the whites” when ethnobiologist Schultes appears during World War II, following the course described in Grunberg’s book.
In both cases, the shaman reluctantly agrees to guide the travelers along the river. Through his eyes, we see the often devastating disruptions of tribal culture in his lifetime alone—before, during, and after exposure to the outsiders. And yet, Karamakate accompanies each explorer on his mission, hoping to persuade the white men to see and listen as the journey continues along the serpentine twists and turns of the Amazon into each man’s private heart of darkness.
The movie, too, glides elegantly in and out of its dual time frames as the parallel stories unspool. In 1909, young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) tries to chase off a canoe bearing Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet). But Grunberg’s companion, Manduca (Yauenku Migue), a tribesman dressed in shirt and trousers, tells him they’ve been sent to ask the shaman the other tribes call the “World Mover” to help heal Grunberg, who is dying of fever.
Karamakate tells them the only way to heal him is with the yakruna plant, which only exists in some distant region. He doesn’t want to help any more white men, but when Grunberg says he’s seen members of the shaman’s lost tribe in that direction, Karamakate agrees to go with them. Along the way, he cooks up a daily brew of smoked coca leaves he blows through a pipe up Grunberg’s nose to keep him going.
By the time Schultes (Brionne Davis) paddles up to his bend in the river decades later, Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar) says he can’t remember his culture. He fears he’s become a “chullachaqui”—an empty vessel with his own face, but nothing left inside. But Schultes (also in search of the yakruna plant) represents Karamakate’s last chance to make the white man understand the people of the Amazon and what’s become of them.
Guerra’s dreamlike pacing and sensuous imagery are often enthralling, even though the incidents the travelers encounter on the way can be harrowing. (Even the chevron-shaped scars of the tapped and bleeding rubber trees have a kind of grim beauty.) The story’s awful centerpiece is a mission school in the middle of the jungle where a Spanish priest beats “the devil” out of the young boys he’s stolen to convert, and forbids “pagan” languages. When Karakamate returns as an old man, the boys have grown into middle age unsupervised, cobbling together an obscene faux religion from Christmas carol lyrics, flagellation, and lurid snippets of Messiah mythology.
Things go a bit astray at the very end, with a hallucinatory color sequence that feels cliched. But the impressive cast of nonprofessional actors who are native to the region, and the grandeur of the natural world that Guerra captures so well make this a journey worth taking.
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT
***1/2 (out of four)
With Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar, Jan Bijvoet, and Brionne Davis. written by Ciro Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal. Directed by Ciro Guerra. An Oscilloscope release. 125 minutes. In Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, and German with English subtitles.