There are many stunning images in Embrace of the Serpent, Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s third film and an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. But let’s start with this one: a group of boys staring into a cruel, uncertain future. On a journey up the Amazon in the early years of the 20th century, German scientist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) and his companions Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) and Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), stop at a remote mission. It’s home to a single priest and a bunch of young boys, orphans of the rubber wars that have devastated the region. Late at night, the visitors witness the priest brutally whipping one of the boys. In the ensuing conflict, the priest is killed then, later, Theodor and his companions float away to their next stop, the boys look on in confusion. They’ve been liberated, but what awaits them?
Embrace of the Serpent‘s unusual structure allows it to provide an answer, albeit a disturbing one. The films unfolds across two timelines. In one, Theodor and the Westernized Manduca meet Karmakate, a shaman and the last surviving member of a tribe killed off by white settlers. They then enlist the reluctant Karmakate to take them to in search of the yakruna, a flower known for its healing and psychedelic properties. Decades later, Evans (Brionne Davis), another scientist with a connection to Theodor who claims he’s lost the ability to dream, resumes the search with the aid of a middle-aged, and more deeply embittered Karmakate.
Guerra co-wrote the film with Jacques Toulemonde Vida, drawing on the journals of a pair of real 20th century explorers who provided the only accounts of some now-lost tribes living along the Amazon. Its most pronounced influences, however, are fictional. The river setting and episodic structure bring to mind Apocalypse Now (and Heart of Darkness before it) and Dead Man. (The rich, black-and-white photography, one of the film’s most striking elements, especially recalls the latter.) There’s some Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God in the mix, too. Nature is as unforgiving here as in Herzog’s films and civilization often takes forms as cruel, perverse, and absurd as those by Coppola and Jarmusch.
But Guerra’s film has a feel all its own, one as discomfiting in its own way as those predecessors. Both Evans and Theodor are on journeys of exploration, but no matter how deep their journey takes them into the jungle, they mostly find the ripple effects of European influence. When Evans arrives at the mission Theodor and Karmakate visited decades earlier, he finds the former orphans practicing an obscene perversion of Christianity. It’s, as Karmakate puts it, “the worst of both worlds.” Maybe the meeting of cultures can produce no other result.
That pessimistic fatalism and horror at the effects of colonialism and environmental devastation drives the film. But if Embrace of the Serpent‘s revelations are a bit familiar, its approach makes them feel otherwise. That Karmakate is more protagonist than sidekick in both timelines goes a long way toward achieving this. Embrace of the Serpent isn’t the story of white men discovering the jungle so much as the story of how a group of men — European and indigenous — get lost searching for revelations in the wild. What they find reveals much, answers nothing, and comforts no one. It’s a lot like the film around it that way.
Embrace of the Serpent is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will soon expand elsewhere.