You may sum up Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent thusly: “White people, am I right?” That does not describe the tone of Guerra’s movie, mind you, but it does describe the perspective of Guerra’s protagonist, Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman who is the last living member of his extinguished tribe. Karamakate is played with equal mastery by two different actors in two different time periods; in 1940, he is portrayed as a tempered elder by Antonio Bolívar, and in 1909, he is brought proudly to life by Nilbio Torres, the strapping young chap whose image is plastered all over the film’s marketing. But Bolívar’s and Torres’s dueling, cross-era performances are linked by one constant: the onus of white male dominion.
This is a pretty way of saying that the film is all about colonialism in the Amazon, so every sensation of discontent you feel should come as little surprise. Embrace of the Serpent is an angry movie that is not at all concerned about disguising its anger; through Karamakate, the film wears its sentiments on its sleeve. Over the course of his life, Karamakate is made to endure the presence of foreigners in his homeland, though for us “foreigners” are represented almost solely by two scientists: Theo (Jan Bijvoet, of Borgman and The Broken Circle Breakdown) and Evan (Brionne Davis). Karamakate meets Theo in 1909, and Evan in 1940. Both of them are on missions to find and obtain yakruna, a sacred and scarce Amazonian plant.
Karamakate’s journeys make up the total of Embrace of the Serpent’s plot, but Guerra’s twin narratives of exploration and discovery are distinguished in tone as befits his hero’s maturity. 1909 Karamakate is suspicious, protective, quick to see and assume the worst in Theo and in all whites, not that anyone can blame him; as they travel across the Amazon with Theo’s comrade, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), they stumble upon the horrific industrial and oppressive scars left on nature’s face by greedy and brutal Colombian rubber barons. In one sequence, Manduca flies into a rage and furiously overturns buckets of pearly latex drawn from a rubber tree the way blood is drawn from a wound: with deep, ugly cuts designed only to promote hemorrhaging. It’s a tough beat, but the graver realization is that the person harvesting that sweet, sweet colloid is just a terrified laborer who knows all too well how kindly the barons repay failure. He begs Manduca to kill him because death is a mercy.
Guerra teaches that lesson well to his viewers throughout the film. 1940s Karamakate is willing to die because, as he tells us, it’s his duty. Embrace of the Serpent tell us that there are things in this world worse than death, such as, for example, witnessing your ancestral legacy sinking under a tidal wave of interloping cultures. Theo wants to find the yakruna to save his own life; he’s dying from malaria, and while the younger Karamakate is able to grant him temporary reprieve from his doom, only yakruna can cure him fully. Evan wants to find the yakruna in the name of Science!; he believes it must be preserved and documented so as not to fade away from the world entirely. You get the sense that Guerra finds neither of their driving impulses disagreeable, and yet at the same time his film wonders aloud: is it better to watch your heritage burn at your own hand than to see outsiders assume stewardship over it?
I may be giving a false impression of the film as nationalist or xenophobic. It is neither. Guerra is documenting real life and giving his own account of it, but he marries his protests to historical atrocities with compassion. He cares about Theo and Evan, even when they cross the line and validate Karamakate’s mistrust in whites. He cares more, though, about Karamakate, about Karamakate’s lost civilization, about the Amazon, about sins committed to satisfy avarice. Maybe that explains Guerra’s decision to shoot Embrace of the Serpent in monochrome: the film’s gorgeous black and white veneer places a layer of simplification over the story’s mounting complexities, oddities, and surrealities, which are summed up best by a late-stage scene where Karamakate and Evan find themselves the unwilling guests to a host who has installed himself as the Christ-like leader of a death cult. (Put in short: that whole business is majorly fucked up.)
The Academy Awards have come and gone and, to no one’s shock, Embrace of the Serpent received no recognition beyond its announcement as a nominee. That’s a shame, but it’s to be expected. Embrace of the Serpent is truly beautiful, but it is unapologetic about its emotions and its beliefs. Most of all, it is wholly original, fie upon the recognizable heart of darkness lurking at its winding, labyrinthine center. It is possible that there’s a tighter movie in here, or at least a more subtle one, but though Guerra plays loose with structure and pacing, his unmuted messages hold the film’s disparate parts under an umbrella of harmony.