To be declared a “daring” film in the year of Gaspar Noé’s 3-D ejaculation and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Planet Hoth-inspired horse carcass sleeping bag is a difficult feat. By these standards, Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” is not particularly flashy: its most shocking moment involves a temporary switch out of black-and-white. Even Dorothy would be unimpressed. Yet I contend that “Embrace of the Serpent” is more purely daring in its careful and beautiful reevaluation of a hotly contested area of history.
Our setting is the Amazonian rainforest, both 100 years ago and 30 years later. We begin in the earlier period with our protagonist–although he would probably object to being called that–Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), who appears to be a tribe of one, alone in a remote area of the region. His solitude is interrupted when a local man, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), arrives, carrying with him his dying friend and employer. The sick man, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), is a German explorer whose seemingly well-intentioned travels through the rainforest have nearly killed him. Karamakate, Manduca is convinced, is the only man who can save Theo.
Thus begins a hallucinatory, at times terrifying journey through the forest to find the rare plant that can save Theo’s life. The film is a visual feast, with the unusual flora, fauna, and people forming one lustrous tableau after the next, the choice monochrome pallete further distancing and essentializing the landscape.
Yet one could easily call this the Amazonian version of a road movie, for the journey quickly becomes more about the men’s opinions of one another and the societies they come across than of the actual medicine they seek.
These lines are further complicated when another story line is layered on top: that of an aged Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) and Evan (Brionne Davis). Years later, the young and ambitious Evan comes barreling into the forest, disturbing Karamakate’s peace once more.
It would be easy for a film such as this to take sides, when it is so clear to the viewer that European aggression has transformed the cultures of the forest. But the film itself does not cast explicit moral judgment on its subjects, and refuses to let the characters or situations fall into cut-and-dry categories. The film encourages the viewer to doubt the intentions of everyone involved, as they neither trust each other, nor know how to preserve what each believe to be the true culture of the Amazon. Some of the richest moments of the film come when the characters are forced into unexpected and painful cultural clashes: their imperfect and sometimes disastrous actions create reverberations that affect future generations, as the parallel timelines show. No one escapes morally unscathed.
For all this, the film is still not a cold exposé of the effects of colonialism: it stays grounded on the human level, touching the emotions without becoming sentimental. When the travelers come across a seemingly despotic Priest (Luigi Sciamanna) running a monastic school of unhappy boys, he confesses that his fellow monks left him alone to search the forest for more converts and never returned. Even the aged Karamakate, living alone in the forest, admits that he has forgotten how to make some of his favorite foods; and as he forgets, that knowledge is lost to the sands of time.
The film is inspired by the works of Theodor Koch Grunberg (1872-1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001) (hence our explorers’ names), whose diaries are apparently some of the only records we have of many Amazonian cultures. This fictionalized, fantastical version of their travels leaves the viewer with no clear answers, except perhaps for an aching sadness at the pain we continue to cause one another over our beliefs and resources.
Because at the end of the day, the film confronts us not with the enormity of cultural erasure, but with one old man who has lost his past, and with it, his culture.