Review: 'Embrace the Serpent'

Colombian director Ciro Guerra merges Conrad and Herzog with mixed results.
MEDICINE MAN: In 'Embrace of the Serpent,' Nilbio Torres plays an Amazonian shaman studying the white explorers who have come to study his people.

The Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent is the biggest European guilt-whip since Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, during which Johnny Depp got called "Stupid white man" half a dozen times.

The Colombian film contrasts two incidents in the life of the Amazonian shaman Karamakate, the last of his nation. He encounters two explorers, some 40 years apart, in the first half of the 20th century. Karamakate (played in youth by Nilbio Torres) is a noble, scornful warrior—physically splendid, with a look of James Woods-worthy disdain on his face. Braced against his seven-foot blowgun, he wears his thong like Superman's trunks.

In 1909, the feverish, dying explorer Theo (Jan Bijvoet), on assignment from the museum in Stuttgart, has travelled deep into Karamakate's forest. He arrives in a dugout canoe by his friend and guide Mandula (Yauenkü Migue), a refugee from the rubber plantations. The two seek a semi-legendary drug, derived from a rare flower called yakruna. The shaman wants nothing to do with these interlopers, at first. Karamakate then changes his mind and agrees to guides the two deeper into the jungles and the wastelands.

The riverlands are blighted with massacres. There are border wars between the Colombians and the Peruvians. Rubber planters commit atrocities that rival those inflicted by the European exploiters in Heart of Darkness. Down the river, Theo gets into a quarrel with a group of natives who steal his compass. The professor wants it back, to keep them from losing their ancestral traditions of celestial navigation. Karamakate is for giving the compass up: "Knowledge belongs to everyone!" he shouts. Later, as Theo grows sicker, the trio comes to a savage Capuchin mission where prayers by day are followed by whippings by night.

Forty years later, a North American explorer named Evan (Brionne Davis) encounters the shaman (now played by Tafillama, a.k.a. Antonio Bolivar Salvador). The outsider says that he's come to study plants. "That's the most sensible thing I ever heard a white man say," the shaman says. But the aged Karamakate—who looks like the elderly Picasso—has forgotten all his lore and become, he says, a "chullachaqui," a spiritless ghost haunting the jungle clearings.

On their travels together, they see rot and decline. The mission has gone full Captain Kurtz. Seeing the crypto-Christian savages there, Karamakate exclaims, in case we didn't get it, "They are now the worst of two worlds."

As played out by the young director Ciro Guerra, working from the diaries of two real-life explorers, it's not Karamakate's otherness that makes us want to learn, nor is there give and take between the shaman and the two white voyagers. He's self-sufficient—it's the white men who need and want and grasp. Embrace of the Serpent bypasses heading back to Carlos Castaneda right into the realm of James Fenimore Cooper's super-Indians.

In black and white and widescreen, Guerra's vision of the rainforest is lambent and gleaming. When Evan submits to the yakruna, the documentary imagery melts into dream sequences of bleedy dayglow psychedelia.

Embrace of the Serpent has been compared to the work of Werner Herzog by critics; some business with a wind-up portable photograph echoes scenes from Fitzcarraldo. But the great pessimistic filmmaker's original theme of white rapacity went meta while on location. Herzog himself went temporarily mad, as per the jungle-loathing rant in the documentary Burden of Dreams: "It's chaos even the birds are screaming in agony!"

It's not cosmic indifference that is the culprit here. Guerra's focus is far more narrow, even with his shots of glowing stars and celestial fireballs. The movie keeps rebuking the clumsy packrat whites who carry so much with them: "they're just things," Karamakate says, as if he were one of those professionals you hire to get the clutter out of your house. The movie isn't completely a celebration of the last of a vanished breed able to talk to the rocks and the trees. Instead, Embrace of the Serpent is a cranky, repetitive complaint issued in clearly European terms.

Embrace of the Serpent
NR; 125 Mins.
Camera 3

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