Embrace of the Serpent: Never Get Out of the Boat, by David Bax
Given that the only recognizable face (at least to arthouse audiences) in Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, set deep in the Colombian Amazon in the early twentieth century, is a white one (Jan Bijvoet, from Borgman and The Broken Circle Breakdown), a fear sets in at the outset that this will be yet another white savior/noble savage movie. Fear not; this is no Dances with Jaguars. In fact, Embrace of the Serpent is an inversion of that kind of tale, told from the point of a view of a member of the native population and the last, or near-last, of his tribe. Guerra drives home the shameful tragedy that some cultures were lost forever to colonialism while also serving up a potent reminder that, though the people may be gone, something of them lives on in the birds and the fish, the jungle and the river.
Guerra’s story, fictional though largely inspired by real surviving diaries, is split into two. In 1909, a German scientist named Theodor (Bijvoet) is dying of disease after four years among the various peoples of the rainforest. Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) guides him and his assistant, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), up the river to locate a rare, hallucinogenic plant that Karamakate says will save him. 40 years later, an American ethnobotanist named Richard (Brionne Davis), having read Theodor’s published journals, returns to the area and also enlists Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar) as a guide to rediscover this mysterious flower. Guerra cuts back and forth between the stories, adding to the already compelling, Apocalypse Now-style upriver episodes the chance to visit the same places back to back with forty years between them and marvel at what has and hasn’t changed.
Guerra and cinematographer David Gallego shoot in a floating, scope black and white, at once lending authenticity to the film’s docudrama aspects and supplementing the dreamy (or nightmarish) mood of its beautiful (or terrifying) imagery. The river rushes, sometimes calmly and sometimes violently, easing from dense claustrophobia under the canopy to a sudden, jaw-dropping mountain vista around the next bend. At the same time, we never know when the characters might encounter a corpse, crucified on a tree along the river by a mad missionary, or a man with one arm and a crushed eye socket, tortured into half a human by cruel rubber plantation overseers. This survey of the beauty and ferocity of nature, human or otherwise, may just as likely be soundtracked by screams and growls as by a symphony coming from Richard’s portable record player.
Alongside these formalist pursuits, Guerra is not afraid to get dialectical. He gives a tour of colonialist/native relations, breaking down the various ways the former is harmful to the latter. The priests see the indigenous as savages to be tamed and civilized. Richard studies them with the same cold indifference he would a leaf or a book. Even Theodor, the most well-intentioned of the white characters, sometimes seems to love the tribesmen and women the way one would a pet in a terrarium. His insistence on them retaining their customs demonstrates respect but also hints that he already sees them as a part of the past.
This comes to a head in an early discussion between Theodor and Karamakate involving a compass. Having stopped to spend the night with a small tribe and wowed them with the instrument, Theodor is dismayed the next morning when they want to keep it. If they have a compass, he argues, their own navigation practices will be lost to time. But it is not Theodor’s role, Karamakate counters, to keep them from learning. Therein lies the driving internal conflict for Karamakate, our protagonist. He hates and mourns the loss of traditions just as much as Theodor does but he also abhors the condescension of the whites who attempt to prevent it. Over 40 years, we watch as these dueling strains of thought turn Karamakate into a character in the tradition of the great Greek and Shakespearean tragedies.
Even as Guerra injects, through Karamakate, more and more mysticism – parables about the snake and the jaguar; views of the river as a great serpent; kaleidoscopic visions – he never spins off too far from the palpable beauty of the film’s weighty, mournful and wondrous center. Embrace of the Serpent practices a kind of psychedelic existentialism as empirical as it is philosophical, all the while remaining simultaneously devastating and uplifting.