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Embrace of the Serpent

(2015) *** Unrated
125 min. Buffalo Films. Director: Ciro Guerra. Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis.

/content/films/4890/1.jpg“Never get out of the boat.” That chestnut from Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War drama Apocalypse Now could just as well encapsulate the foreboding associated with the Amazon River across cinema history. From Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo to The Emerald Forest and The Mission, the river has taken white men into confrontations with their own hearts of darkness as the indigenous people look on in bemusement. Now Embrace of the Serpent, the first Colombian film to be honored with a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the Oscars, offers different angles on the Amazon, its people, and white interlopers.

Director Ciro Guerra co-wrote with Jacques Toulemonde Vidal a screenplay that uses chronological breadth to show the effects of colonialism (primarily the rubber trade) on the environment and the people. The story—loosely inspired by the journals of real-life explorers Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes—unfolds in two timelines, both centered on Amazonian shaman Karamakate. Around 1909, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) accompanies the German ethnologist “Theo” (Jan Bijvoet) on a search. The malarial German wants to find the rare, healing yakruna plant, while Karamakate, who believes himself to be the last of his Cohiuano tribe, hopes Theo’s rumor of other survivors will bear out. In a mirrored plotline that unfolds decades later, Karamakate (played here by Antonio Bolivar) guides American botanist “Evan” (Brionne Davis) on another search for the yakruna, across familiar ground.

Almost nothing about Embrace of the Serpent is literal: the Cohiuano and the yakruna are both fictional, and even David Gallego’s gorgeous black-and-white photography of the Colombian Amazon creates a dialogue between a real space and how it was seen in the vintage photographs of ethnographers. Exercising a moderate level of restraint (Guerra holds psychedelia in reserve for his big finish), the director lines up the mirrored images of both timelines and proffers conspicuous symbolism (much of it around the horrors of a Catholic orphanage, in its institutional and adulterated forms). A knife makes a rubber tree bleed white, and it doesn’t take a grad student to understand what we’re meant to think.

But the stark poetry functions much as intended. For its not-so-stealth didacticism, Embrace of the Serpent does have a hypnotic, mildly intoxicating quality about it, and its meditations on cultural interference and rapacious outsider abuse of native peoples and natural resources prove sadly relevant to our moment. Perhaps most importantly, the subtle shift of focus from the white explorers to the native guide allows both a welcome political correctness and a depth of sadness that, for once, isn’t once removed.

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