Review: Wonderfully Exotic And Soulful 'Embrace Of The Serpent'

Stories about indigenous tribes' encounters with white men almost never turn out well....for the natives, anyway. History is too littered with examples of entire clans being sacrificed, uprooted, or enslaved to the needs of expansion or business interests. Those who fought back were usually slaughtered, wiped out with all of their knowledge lost forever. It's a sad, brutal history, and that backdrop informs every frame of Ciro Guerra's stunningly beautiful, deeply thematic Embrace of the Serpent, a film that within moments establishes itself as a must-see for those looking for something truly original.

Shot in exquisite black and white with a lush Amazonian locale, the film looks like a restored adventure classic, think Alan Quartermain if he were traveling into the heart of darkness. Set in the early 20th century, the story is loosely based on the writings of two explorers whose work comprises much of what we know about the ancient South American tribes. While a wholly fictional piece, you'll be instantly overwhelmed by the authentic period details, feeling as if a passenger on this mysterious, dangerous, and soulful expedition. 

From the moment we meet the stoic tribal shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), standing on the water's edge with his face paint and muscular frame, we know he's not the type to suffer white men easily. We know he stands as a bulwark against their encroachment into ancestors' lands, he stands as a wall against rampant colonialism. That much is confirmed when a boat carrying an ailing white man, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his native companion, arrives on shore in need of help. That's not going to happen. Karamakate is the last of his clan, having seen them wiped out by the whites seeking to make a profit in the rubber trade. While all seems hopeless, Theo makes the one offer he can, and that's to take Karamakate to a place where some of his tribe may remain. While he refuses at first out of anger and distrust, the chance to rebuild cannot be overlooked, and Karamakate agrees to accompany Theo and help get him back to full health.

What follows is a strange, wonderfully exotic quest that examines the impact of rapid colonization and the obsessive thirst for knowledge. Karamakate, who is played by two different men in two different time periods, is understandably full of rage over what has happened to his people, and his early interactions with Theo are brusk, insulting. Years later, an aging Karamakate (played by  Antonio Bolivar Salvado Yangiama)  has a much different outlook on life when he encounters another white man, Evan (Brionne Davis), who is searching for the healing plant that supposedly saved Theo's life.  Reconciling the two very different versions of Karamakate is one of the film's great joys, as Guerra skillfully sews the seeds of his evolution through pointed conversations and, occasionally, comic misadventures. 

Beneath the beautiful, naturalistic imagery there lurks something dark and edgy, even frightening, making it impossible to forget the black reality of what happened to these indigenous clans. A latter encounter with a dangerous religious cult devolves into horror, a sequence that is so disturbing it nearly overwhelms the rest of the film which has unfolded in a deliberate manner. But there are is plenty of humor to be found in the many cultural clashes, smartly woven with considerable insight. For instance, a lost piece of technology that falls into the hands of natives becomes a funny and thought-provoking discussion about the negative intellectual impacts of such technology, a topic we still wrestle with today. 

For all of its indescribable beauty and the unforgettable character of Karamakate, the film is still probably going to be appreciated by aficionados and not casual audiences. The pacing is slow, to say the least, and while gorgeous to look at there isn't a ton of variety in the scenery. You've seen one river you've seen them all.  And Guerra, who also co-wrote the screenplay, doesn't make much of an effort to explain Karamakate's bizarre mystical ramblings, which is infuriating right up until the film goes full-blown psychedelic.  Ultimately, Embrace of the Serpent is a mesmerizing, unforgettable film about the power of knowledge, and how it must be passed on through the generations. It's not unfathomable that we'll be seeing this film passed along, as well, to be studied and learned from for years to come. 

Rating: 4 out of 5