Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent opens on a stray bank of the Amazon river, the black-and-white frame’s opacity so blown out by sunlight (and its reflection) that the river and the sky find no visible border. The jungle’s lushness speaks for itself early and often, and while it’s beyond played out to describe a film’s location as one of its supporting characters, Guerra finds no small amount of serene menace from which to mine dramatic tension. Co-written with Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, the film’s screenplay narrativizes a stitchwork of myth and history, concerning a fictitious psychedelic blossom, the yakruna, sought by two real-life white anthropologists: Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) in 1909, and Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) some 40 or so years later. Both men are guided by an indigenous shaman, Karamakate (played alternately by Nibio Torres and Antonio Bolivar), who functions as the film’s emotional anchor.
Cinematographer David Gallego’s muscular tracking movements posit nothing so much as the question of arriving—of witnessing something for the first time, and with uncertain eyes. A man ostensibly standing outside of history’s long march, Karamakate has long since accepted that he’s the last remaining member of the Cohiuano tribe. As Theo’s research suggests more survivors may be found upriver, the two enter into a shaky bargain, and Karamakate’s handling of Theo—wheezing, emaciated, feverish, in search of the yakruna for his own medicinal benefit—allow for queasy overtures toward an upturned power dynamic. The parallel 1940s plotline is more subdued, but it carries its own unease: Even if Evans is the latest white man to arrive in the jungle insisting he means no harm, Karamakate’s paranoid resentment, so evident in the man’s body language, suggests he believes otherwise.
The decision to stake Embrace of the Serpent’s emotions on the passage of time observed (and ultimately) rejected by Karamakate—and not, say, Theo’s psychedelic delirium, or the real-life Evans’s crusade to bring awareness to the disappearing rainforest upon his return to Europe—is more than just laudable. If the film aims to speak for the untold hundreds of thousands whose cultures and languages were wiped out by invading rubber profiteers, the paralleled trajectories allow the screenplay to trace the domino-like effects of this violence across generations. In the face of such historical vastness, no mere three-act screenplay would suffice for encapsulation; Guerra himself has pointed out in interviews that the film’s most harrowing sequences are but an imagined fraction of what actually took place.
Karamakate’s two visits to a Catholic orphanage are particularly wrenching, even Guerman-esque: The first sees a white monk whipping native children, while the second sees the same kids grown up to self-flagellate in delusional contrition to a false, drug-maddened prophet. But the film spends its runtime grasping after more than macabre thrills. Guerra and Vidal shoehorn many complicated themes into the bursting ethnographic bric-a-brac of their screenplay, the majority of them at once belabored and yet crucial to the film’s scope. Karamakate serves as the wisened indigenous stereotype, teaching the white man how to “dream” for the first time while bemoaning his own disintegration into a chullachaqui: a slackened spirit aimlessly wandering the land, shorn of its past. When he angrily discovers a tintype photograph of himself among Theo’s belongings, it’s a metaphor simultaneously rich in historical implication and unmissable in its cinematic dot-connecting.
For all the time it takes Karamakate to lead Evan to the final surviving yakruna plant (and, as promised by the film’s buildup, a destined-to-disappoint vision quest), it’s worth noting that this is the kind of film were a man scales an entire mountain range in four steps and one edit. The culture-clash subplots are even twinned by a simmering conflict between an actual leopard and serpent (shot, unlike the rest of the production, in what appears to be blown-up night-vision DV). Herein lies the paradox: Guerra’s excesses in arthouse symmetry tend to arrive in the service of a just and angry correctivism. So for all the praise greeting Embrace of the Serpent’s tremendous accomplishment, one can only hope its success allows for finer-grained indigenous narratives to reach the big screen, rather than being taken as a cure-all unto itself.