Film Review: Embrace of the Serpent

In Ciro Guerra’s pristinely photographed, spiritually revelatory odyssey, two Western explorers are led on a fantastical journey into the Amazon by the same native shaman decades apart.
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Further research would be needed to prove this theory. But it’s probable that nowhere in the writings of Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872–1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915–2001) would you find evidence of a cultish colony fixated on flagellation and crucifixion. Ciro Guerra’s ambitious bolting together of imagined quests by these two real-life explorers adds a lot of that kind of sinister, quasi-Conradian color, but it’s mostly to positive effect. Even though Embrace of the Serpent’s sometimes violent and frequently otherworldly journey up a jungle-bounded river can’t help but echo Coppola and Herzog, Guerra pursues his own path in striking fashion.

In almost every scene, the script by Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde is threatened with irrelevance by David Gallego’s lush black-and-white cinematography. His long, artfully framed shots and the immersive soundscape deeply embed the viewer in Guerra’s part-documentary and part-fantasy vision of the Amazon. But Guerra and Toulemonde’s thoughtful (if at times too symbolic) writing, which heavily elaborates on Koch-Grünberg and Schultes’ accounts of their studies of remote tribes and rare plants in the Amazon, keeps the mind engaged as much as the eye and ear.

The film’s two explorers aren’t just men of science, they’re seekers looking for an inner life. Theo (a riveting Jan Bijvoet) is the first to appear. He’s sickened and wasting away in a canoe piloted by his assistant Manduca (Yauenkü Miguee), who needs help from a shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres). The tension in these early scenes is telling, as the point of view lies less with the white man’s experience of this new land and people than with the native characters’ take on him.

Karamakate, a regal and pensive presence, doesn’t trust Theo, and for good reason. He lives alone in the rainforest, his people dead and dispersed by the white rubber barons enslaving all the natives in the forest and killing those who resist. “You submitted to the whites without a fight,” he rages at Manduca, before agreeing to take them to the yakuruna plant. It just so happens to be located in Karamakate’s mountaintop home and is also the one thing he believes will cure Theo. It’s never quite clear why Karamakate agrees to a journey that he insists all along will be a bad idea, with a man whose presence in his forest he deeply resents. The violent force with which Karamakate blasts a curative powder into Theo’s nostrils suggests that the voyage will be both purgative and punitive. Their encounters along the way—mystical visions and nightmarish interludes showing the depredations of the whites harvesting souls for God and rubber for their industry—proves this to be the case.

Decades later, another white explorer, Evan (Brionne Davis), floats down the river and into the life of a shaman. This Karamakate (whose older, quieter self is played by Antonio Bolivar) is again suborned into a journey back to his ancestral mountain, the “Workshop of the Gods.” Only this time, he doesn’t remember the way and the rage of his younger self has been replaced by a haunted regret. Older Karamakate sees everything through a scrim, insisting that he’s not himself and is actually a chullachaqui, a kind of double his people believe everyone has: “He looks just like you, but he’s empty, hollow…like a ghost.” Evan doesn’t understand and doesn’t care; his respectful dealings with the shaman are backed by a poorly disguised arrogance. Like Theo, Evan needs Karamakate’s help, but only so far as it will get him to the yakuruna. Also like Theo, Evan insists that he has never dreamed.

As the fulcrum of the plot hinging together Theo and Evan’s journeys, Karamakate is easily the film’s most engaging element. Like most films of this sort where white interlopers encounter natives, the revelation is all for them. But Guerra makes this Karamakate’s story instead. A staunch defender of tradition, he implores the children they find in a mission being beaten by a sadistic monk to keep the old ways. But he isn’t limited by tradition. When Theo argues that they need to retrieve his compass from natives who stole it because they would lose their ability to read the stars for direction, Karamakate sneers at his (and likely some of the audience’s) assumption that the natives were like museum exhibits who would be harmed by knowledge: “You’re nothing but a white.” Although Karamakate’s lectures on Theo and Evan’s foolish attachment to physical things and the poverty of their inner selves threaten to turn him into some profundity-uttering symbol, his impatience and deep-welled sadness makes him the most fully realized character onscreen.

That anger and sadness is shot all through Guerra’s remarkable film, which functions as both elegy for a doomed culture and a lush and surreal epic of the spirit.

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