“Embrace of the Serpent” mysteriously and surreally takes us on a journey through nature and history to examine the value of preserving culture in the face of radical, profound change. Told in two time periods surrounding the Amazonian shaman Karamakate’s encounters both as a young and old man with visiting white men, Ciro Guerra’s Oscar nominated foreign language film finds unexplored twists in the culture clash narrative and delivers an entrancing look at the jungle through a native’s eye.
“How could I forget the gifts that God has given us? What have I become?” Karamakate speaks these words in fear of becoming a “chullachaqui,” or as the film defines it, an empty ghost and shell of one’s past self. He sees a photo of himself for the first time and comes to understand it not as himself but a memory of a past moment. In that moment lays the lost legacy of his people.
“Embrace of the Serpent” is loosely based on two diaries documenting the events of the rubber boom in Colombia, during which time an estimated 90 percent of the native population was wiped out by wealthy, white rubber barons (think Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo”). The first by Theodor Koch-Grunberg, a German ethnologist, serves as the basis for Theo (Jan Bijovet), a white scientist at the turn of the century slowly dying and in need of a sacred and medicinal flower called yakruna (also fictional). Several decades later, Evan (Brionne Davis) is an American botanist (this part based on biologist Richard Evans Schultes) who reads Theo’s account and wants to see if yakruna really exists. In each alternating story, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres as a young man, Antonio Bolivar as an old man) finds himself at odds with his companions, mistrusting of their intentions but reluctantly willing to lead them through the forest to find the sacred plant.
Yet Guerra challenges some of the typical assumptions of the invading white man learning to discover nature, and he avoids the insanity tales that have been a trope of the Amazon movie since “Aguirre, Wrath of God.” Karamakate initially seems right to be wary of Theo, warning him that the only way to survive the jungle is to respect it and follow the rules of the wildlife that lives there. But his hatred may be unfounded when we see how Theo has earned the trust of his travel companion Manduca (Yauenku Migue) as well as another tribe. This dynamic complicates the culture clash narrative that all native cultures are pure and innocent. In one scene, Theo shares stories and sings and dances for a tribe’s amusement, and they repay him by stealing his compass. Theo argues that with technology, they’ll lose their built-up knowledge of navigating by the stars, to which Karamakate replies, “You can’t forbid them to learn, but you can’t know that because you’re white.” Guerra’s story has layers and is hardly so black and white.
“Embrace of the Serpent” however is a spiritual story above a cultural one, and the many and frequent metaphors, symbolism and surreal diversions (including one yakruna-fused head trip that seems to channel “2001: A Space Odyssey”) range from devastating to enlightening to strained. One run-in with a deluded, cannibalistic Messiah figure is wholly shocking but feels separated from their more tangible journey. When “Embrace of the Serpent” reveals the plight and suffering as a result of the rubber boom, it’s more effective than when reaching for religious themes. One encounter with a muddy, disfigured native who grovels for his life after Karamakate ruins the man’s rubber harvest particularly resonates, far more so than vague symbolism of jaguars, serpents and meteors.
But Guerra’s film mystifies and enchants with a liberated camera and stark black and white cinematography that give an entirely magical look at nature. The camera has a habit of stalking through the forest, swiveling around trees and gliding over the river. It’s the Amazon in the way a native might see it, and as Karamakate wished, it serves as a reminder of the gifts God has given us.
3 ½ stars