The shaman senses the encounter is a herald of the decay of his culture, yet another affirmation that the arrival of forces from the outside world will continue to pillage the land, enslave the natives and convert them to a religious philosophy that betrays their nature. Seething with dislike he barks pointed criticisms at the white man, all while remaining stone-faced and precise in the delivery. This is not where he belongs or is wanted, and to possess the arrogant assumption that a survivor of a “cleansing” will offer any form of assistance after all that has been lost is perhaps the most glaring offense of them all. But a commonality does unite them, perhaps not accidentally: a detailed sketch of a symbol that both recognize from a dream, where everything may not be so involuntary. Is their mutual understanding of it a mere coincidence, or does the Earth indeed have destinies for these men that exist outside the bounds of conscious reasoning? Better yet, are they patient enough with one another to arrive at a point of enlightenment?
The hostility of worlds divided by language and custom is a study routinely evoked at the forefront of a handful of urgent morality yarns, but “Embrace of the Serpent,” a startling new cinematic vision from Columbia, is an elusive commodity: a film that deals with those realizations beyond the conventional spectrum of interpretation. Based on the journals of a German explorer named Theodor von Martius – a man who wandered into the “infinite jungles” of South America in 1909 and rose from it as if reborn into immortality – what is supplied on the screen is an idea soaked in the lushness and beauty of a meditative hallucination, displacing the audience’s obligation to identify a source or reason in the underlying conflict. Not unlike Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” there is a primary motive driving the visuals that simply wants to observe details, however violent or perfunctory. But whereas most films often do so for a sensational or visceral purpose, here is an endeavor that avoids calling on all of the obvious emotional cues of a familiar trajectory. During a second viewing over the course of a long weekend in April, I was so enamored by its depth that I became convinced that this was one of the most profound filmmaking experiences of my lifetime.
The wisdom of director Ciro Guerra’s film is not in how he views the material, but in how he allows it to stare back at him. Some filmmakers choose to deal with the austerity of a subject by shaping it out of stubborn perceptions, or at least with impudence that matches the content. But there is a thread of distinction hovering below the periphery of the narrative that is as obligatory as any natural creation, and Guerra absorbs it with the directness of an eager observer being carried along a magnetic current. Just as a caterpillar pupates into a stunning butterfly, the movie weaves a path of certainty that is as blunt an examination of the human instinct as any film by Coppola or Herzog. A plethora of sentiments are caught in observation by the camera, and through them one is reminded of the directness of the old laws of nature, which sought nothing from the inhabitants other than an understanding of a cautious balance of respect and order. Only those who resisted the embrace were the ones that were devoured by the ravenous jaws of fate.
The two stories going on within “Embrace of the Serpent” revolve around the loss of that order to the clutches of a chaos inspired by ignorance. Four lives, each regarded with similar mantras, intertwine in a journey for an object that is perceived as a solution to a universal mystery: a plant known as “yakruna,” which apparently possesses valuable healing properties. In the earlier story, the scientist Theodor von Martius (Jan Bijvoet) arrives at urgent fascination with the plant out of a necessity to preserve his declining health; inflicted with an ailment that makes him weak and delusional, he has absorbed the stories of yakruna as legend among the natives. The later story, meanwhile, introduces us to Evan (Brionne Davis), a more modern man of science whose knowledge of Theo’s journals propels his own interest, though for less selfish motives. In both instances they are passed along by their fascination into the company of a single native whose knowledge of the jungle is the key to unraveling its mystery. But what both visiting men find waiting for them along the road are facets of their existence they are not ready to face – because they have not yet found the wisdom to understand their meaning, much less see the setting beyond the limits of their own personal isolation.
Self-discovery becomes statutory in any narrative that brings man back to the bed of his origin, but the film pitches interesting curve balls by its thorough assimilation of the Karamakate character, a native who doesn’t so much offer morsels of wisdom as he quietly evolves in the company of those he neither trusts nor understands. This is as much his journey as it is theirs, and while they are programmed to witness the tragic implications of the Christian occupation, so is he carried along into more solitary observations about who to trust, and why. So much evil and persecution litters the jungle, ranging from the insistent razing of rubber plantations – occurring mostly off-screen – to full graveyards of natives murdered for trade (one survivor begs for the white man to murder him, a fate which he would accept as a form of liberation). There are also key exchanges showing the shaman iterating a statement about the futility of personal possessions; one man is reluctant to let them go, the other responds in sacrifice. That impulse has its own ramifications on Karamakate’s perceptions.
Later still, there is a pair of sequences showing how a Christian monastery's narrow treatment of the Columbian children can deaden their perspective as adults. These scenes have such a startling level of cruelty to them that it’s more a wonder Karmakate can even accept his visitors, much less observe them regard what they see with disgust. In the earlier sequence he witnesses the horrific beating of a child who is taught to harvest plant leaves; in the later, he watches a false prophet claim to be a Messiah, promptly before engaging in a randomized ceremony of lust and indulgence. What motivates the story to go such a challenging route if the episodes might not ordinarily relate? This all plays directly into the effect of a rousing finale where reality itself evaporates and the shaman’s soul is consumed by the cosmos, shortly after it has embraced the “serpent” of his calling. In most movies with the conviction of deadpan realism the sequence might have seemed coarse or displaced, but under the influence of the movie’s rich texture it echoes the brilliance of the famous starchild sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” No one who sees it will easily forget it, even though they may be paralyzed by their failure to slot it into a convenient narrative context.
The beauty of the film – shot entirely in black-and-white – rests on the shoulders of very gifted visual magicians. Guerra casts a technical shadow over this material that is as evocative as it is fearless, right down to the stark close-ups of the faces of natives to the sobering establishing shots of trees among miles of calm water. The visual technique is one of the more breathtaking revelations – cautious, precise and fluid, especially on the open river where the camera seems to move without gravity working against it. The vastness of the cinematography, elevating the story beyond the restraints of traditional reality, seems to suggest that we are being lifted into the upper tiers of cerebral contemplation. And the music, often sparse and simple, is used to advance the drama to the height of vigorous realization. Later in the film, when Evan plays what will be the first piece of music Karamakate will ever hear on a phonograph, his reaction reflects the purity of all those who learn to bask in the glory of a new discovery. It is one of the movie’s most powerful scenes.
By using authentic Colombian tribesmen as actors in key roles, furthermore, the movie gains an even deeper degree of plausibility than what might have otherwise been feasible. The great directors have taken this approach frequently in films about the wanderers of the forest (usually because they had few choices or miniscule budgets), but both Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar – who play both the younger and older versions of Karamakate – are more than just adequate pairings: they genuinely seem cut from the same biological cloth, separated only by age and scars. Each performance is anchored by the conviction of men who believe in their dialogue and the direction of their characters, and while Torres is astonishingly sharp as the younger version, it is Bolivar as an older and senile shaman that touches on all the relatable emotional facets. If there is a difficulty for common audiences to identify with either, it’s because the movie does not tell their stories in the conventional sense. Most would simply isolate them as if chapters of a book, while Guerra takes the approach of bouncing between both, usually in a rapid succession of edits.
But both stories are told that way, I believe, to contrast the way age and experience changes one’s perception of the world during moments that correlate. The two versions of Karamakate possess the deep ideology of a man fluent in the ways of nature, but the younger lacks the conviction to see beyond his own impulses – no doubt because he remains displaced by the loss of his ancestors. Theo is cast in the image of his oppressors purely by association, and can anyone really hold him to task for that? Sometimes we make villains of the bystanders of our enemies because we have to. And yet Theo’s presence does leave enough of a residual imprint to inspire the sorts of considerations that will inform his guide’s choices years later, just as Evan comes to request the same sort of assistance with the yakruna plant. By then, the resentment has faded and the goals of the strangers are clearer, less ulterior. There is an exchange between them on the slope of a mountain so resonating that Guerra uses his back-and-forth strategy to amplify the brilliance of the meaning: he swaps between two endings as a way of weighing the truth and the illusion of the experiences. Was Karamakate wrong to lead Theo into a destructive scenario? Didn’t the open wounds of his ancestral separation justify the sacrifice of the mission and the preservation of his way of life? What was worth preserving if no one remained to carry the legacy? In that one moment is a feeling that requires no explanation and no reasoning – only a sobering acknowledgment of the necessity of choice. And then comes the moment when reality finally dissolves into the stars and we are left alone with our newfound insight, whatever that may be.
I first saw “Embrace of the Serpent” out of an allure of curiosity; because it was the first foreign film from Columbia ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, the movie had been billed by independent theater chains as some kind of entrancing masterpiece. The impact of the visuals were admittedly so intoxicating that much of the story itself went over my head during that initial experience, and a second viewing became necessary, just to be sure something had matched the evocative nature of the imagery. But as I sat and contemplated the material, I quickly realized that the surface of Guerra’s story (which would have been enough) was also a precursor to something far more astounding. Here he doesn’t want us to think just in terms of what happens to Evan or Theo or Karamakate; he asks that we think about our place in the world, how we exist amongst one another and how our limited perspectives diminish our treatment of those with differences. Sometimes that requires us to depend on ourselves for the rationale, not always the literal translations that are written in a character’s dialogue. Strange to assume that such details could exist in the tranquil frames of a journey through the South American jungles, but all of the cues are there, anxiously awaiting discovery in a frame filled with endless beauty. There is a moment early on when Karamakate looks down at an ill Theo and announces that “the only way to heal is to learn to dream.” Only much later do we realize he is probably directing his wisdom more at an audience not yet absorbed by the expedition.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/History (Columbia); 2015; Not Rated; Running Time: 125 Minutes
Nilbio Torres: Young Karamakate
Jan Bijvoet: Theo
Antonio Bolivar: Old Karamakate
Brionne Davis: Evan
Yauenku Migue: Manduca
Produced by Raul Bravo, Marcelo Cespedes, Cristina Gallego, Jose Ernesto Martinez, Esteban Mentasti, Horacio Mentasti and Hori Mentasti; Directed by Ciro Guerra; Written by Ciro Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal; based on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes