In the early days of the 20th Century, a German explorer named Theo (Jan Bijvoet, The Broken Circle Breakdown) comes down with a serious illness while wandering through the Amazon. Theo's loyal servant Manduca (Yauenku Migue) takes the explorer to a young Amazonian shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), who initially scoffs at the notion of helping a white man. Manduca argues that Theo isn't like other white men – that he only seeks to learn – and the shaman eventually relents, revealing that Theo must seek out a sacred healing plant known as yakruna. Karamakate agrees to serve as a guide of sorts, but warns that Theo must abide by a series of restrictions until the journey is completed, refraining from eating and doing certain things for his own sake and for the sake of the jungle.
Some forty years later, an American botanist named Evan (Brionne Davis, Narcissist) turns up in the same part of the jungle and meets the same shaman (now played by Antonio Bolivar). Evan claims that he has “devoted his life to plants,” and that he yearns to discover the legendary yakruna. Karamakate claims that he doesn't remember where it is, but agrees to join the expedition and enigmatically insists that the American will help him find the plant.
Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent – one of 2015's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees - glides back and forth between these two stories (inspired by the travel diaries of real-life explorers Theodor von Martins and Richard Evan Schultes), with pieces from each tale informing the other in a variety of fascinating ways. The two white men are largely responsible for driving the plot forward, but they are not the central figures of this tale. This is Karamakate's story, and on a larger level, it is the story of countless lost cultures. When we first meet Karamakate, he is sharp, angry and filled with a deep sense of respect for the jungle and for his tribe's way of life (despite the fact that he chooses to live as a hermit and has little contact with his people). When we meet him as an old man, he seems to be a shadow of his former self: he is the last surviving member of his tribe, and he is filled with shame at how much of what he once held dear he has lost.
This is an episodic film, filled with memorable stops that introduce us to different pockets of Amazonian culture. Over time, these interludes add up to an extraordinarily powerful condemnation of western imperialism, demonstrating the many ways in which these once-beautiful cultures have been crushed, corrupted or fundamentally damaged by outsiders: slavers building rubber plantations, missionaries shoving their religious beliefs down the throats of local “heathens”... even humble explorers who claim they only want to learn more about a culture. Some of the outsiders who have come to the Amazon are more blatantly evil than others, but as far as Karamakate is concerned, nothing good has ever come of a visit from a white man. Some of the film's most powerful moments are found in the ripple effect that occurs between the two stories: Theo, Manduca and Karamakate make a brief stop a Christian mission, and as soon as they leave, the film shifts forward a few decades to demonstrate the horrifying (yet also darkly comic) consequences of that visit. What happens isn't entirely their fault – they merely added another ingredient to a cultural stew that was already toxic – but the point is effectively made.
In Guerra's eyes, the consequences of imperialism go far beyond simple brutality and oppression. The film is angry about the physical violence that has been inflicted on these people, but it's even angrier about the spiritual damage that has been done. Here are people who have been living in harmony with the earth, people who are removed enough from the trappings and distractions of “civilized” society to hear nature's voice. That relationship is a fragile, beautiful thing; precious beyond measure and easily-shattered. There are many haunting images in the film, and few more affecting than the sight of the once-proud Karamakate openly weeping over the things he has forgotten.
The film's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography effectively emphasizes the fact that the world we're seeing is one that has been drained of its former richness. At times it (perhaps unavoidably) feels reminiscent of Werner Herzog's great Amazonian dramas (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo), and there's an early acknowledgment of Herzog's firmly-held belief that the jungle has a tendency to inspire madness. Still, there's a key thematic difference between those films and this one: Herzog's films focus on the madness that nature inflicts upon men, while this film spotlights the madness that men inflict upon nature. The film's parallel quests for a mythical plant also inspire memories of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, which similarly underlined the urgency of finding an elusive piece of spiritual understanding. One of the film's most grimly memorable sequences directly echoes a scene from Tom Tykwer's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, while the film's climax nods at 2001: A Space Odyssey. Guerra has made something that feels unique, but the film's assorted inspirations share common elements of extraordinary cinematic ambition and surprising spiritual depth.
The performances are exceptional, particularly Torres and Bolivar as the young and old versions of Karamakate. This is the first film either actor has appeared in, but both deliver rich, fully-realized performances that feel intimately connected despite some fairly blatant surface-level differences. In a different way, Theo and Evan are essentially the same person: both struggle to fully understand the cultural beliefs they have been asked to respect, and both firmly resist being asked to let go of their attachment to things. There are some provocative thoughts here about the way modern cultures have chosen to allow material possessions to serve as a substitute for our memories. The notion of man's duality is discussed on numerous occasions in the film, as Karamakate suggests that there is a version of us that is striving to live the way man was meant to live, and a version of us that is hollow and soulless (a chullachaqui).
Embrace of the Serpent offers valuable lessons to both its characters and its audience, but it does an admirable job of avoiding oversimplifying those lessons (acknowledging both the arrogance of attempting to impose one's views on another culture and the arrogance of attempting to withhold understanding from another culture). The film's deepest purpose is made explicit by a closing credits acknowledgment: the film is dedicated to “peoples whose song we will never know.” Guerra's majestic, human, heartbreaking work gives us a few powerful notes from some of those forgotten melodies, and offers a profound portrait of what we have lost. This is essential viewing.
Embrace of the Serpent
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Year: 2016