Worlds collide in angry, poetic Colombian film
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 about 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.
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. MPAA rating: Not rated Running time: 2:15 Opens: Friday
The first journey begins in 1909 with the 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).
Manduca has been looking for Karamakate because he is said to know the whereabouts of the Yakruna plant, which has the potential to cure the dying Theo (who’s based on real-life explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg).
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, 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.”
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 remember where he is going. When Evan says he has devoted his life to plants, Karamakate replies, “That’s the most reasonable thing I ever heard a white man say.”
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.
Yauenku Miguee, left, Jan Bijvoet and Nilbio Torres in “Embrace of the Serpent.”