White Explorers, Black Heart: Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace of the Serpent
Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Embrace of the Serpent
Directed by Ciro Guerra
Opens February 17

“One day they will finish all the food in the jungle,” a shaman predicts of the white man in the Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent, a foreign-language Oscar nominee that vividly laments the Western “cultivation” of the Amazonian rain forest in the first half of the 20th century. Shot in Super 35mm black and white well-suited to its lapses into the hallucinatory, and scored to the chirping of insects, Serpent conveys a superbly lucid sense of the jungle’s density. That the colonists hack back precisely where life flourishes most, then, seems especially tragic. Here, unseen rubber barons torture natives into torturing the white sap forth from trees, and missionaries instill their own scarcely less abusive regimes on plots of land cleared of any and all vegetation.

Fluidly drifting between two timelines, writer-director Ciro Guerra’s film dramatizes the search for a cure to the soul-sickness that’s running rampant around the riverbed. In the early 1900s, that young shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), gains a grudging respect for an ambiguously ailing anthropologist (Jan Bijvoet) as they go in search of a mythical, medicinal psychedelic called yakruna; as industrial world war rages a world away, a much older, more protectively coy Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) comes into contact with an American scientist (Brionne Davis) seeking the same. The learned men in the unbuttoned button-downs, more levelheaded than Werner Herzog’s monomaniacs of the Amazon but after their own botanical El Dorado all the same, give the film its narrative shape, but there’s never any doubt that Karamakate is the real animating force here. For one thing, the guide keeps the wilting ethnologist up and about by regularly blowing a stimulant up his nose.

Two travel diaries in particular, by German explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Harvard biologist Richard Evans Schultes, served as inspiration for Guerra, disparate material he appears to have synthesized rather well. If Serpent is not quite weird enough to make for a fully transporting vision quest, its dual narrative nonetheless gives the film an impressively bleak fullness-of-time grandeur as an indictment of colonialism. A ways into the proceedings, a capuchin lashes one of the boys under his care; the camera comes to rest not on the punishment itself but on the hollow expression of the stock-still boy whose torch is lighting up the scene. The only thing more hair-raising than this moment is the sequence that unfolds at the selfsame mission a few decades later: A power-drunk European has perverted his faith still further by proclaiming himself Messiah and compelling the natives to do his nasty bidding. The mission, scarcely recognizable as such, now makes Colonel Kurtz’s compound look like a model community. Somehow, the new order proves even more debased than the old.


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