From Francis Ford Coppola to Werner Herzog, maverick filmmakers have always been entranced by the madness of the jungle. Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent doesn’t shy away from the violence of Apocalypse Now or the delirium of Fitzcarraldo, but his trippy dive into the dark heart of his homeland is ultimately like nothing you’ve seen before.
In 1909, sick and scraggly Dutch explorer Theodor von Martius (Borgman star Jan Bijvoet) travels up the Amazon river in search of the rare yakruna leaf that can supposedly cure his illness. Although he’s aided by a native companion who paddles him downstream, Von Martius knows that only one man can help him find what he’s after: Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), a distrusting Cohiuano shaman who’s the last of his tribe. Every so often, the film jumps 40 years into the future to join a rugged American named Evan (Brionne Davis) as he enlists an older Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar) to retrace his steps on a hunt for the same plant — snaking together these parallel journeys into a mesmeric call and response.
Embrace of the Serpent is the first Colombian movie to ever be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and it’s hard to imagine how it broke through. Shot in dreamy black and white, spoken in nine separate languages, and told with an unerring devotion to authenticity (Torres is a native Cubeo tribesman), this requiem for the ravages of white hegemony isn’t exactly Dances With Wolves. The film is as long as it is brutal, with both of its trancelike timelines hinging on hallucinatory sequences of a community torn to shreds after being touched by Western religion. It’s also uncommonly nuanced in comparison to most anti-colonialist adventure movies — a key scene in which a chieftain steals the explorer’s compass becomes a chance to argue that cultural purity is too often synonymous with ignorance.
Yet knowledge is precisely what the white rubber barons are obliterating by greedily razing the jungle for profit, and what causes the shaman to feel he’s betraying the dead by forgetting their ways. It’s riveting to watch Karamakate understand that this quiet American is the best way to preserve the past — and for viewers to realize the filmmaker is essentially picking up where his interloping protagonist left off. Plenty of movies have ensnared their white heroes in the green infinity of the Amazon, but Embrace digs so deep into the void that it eventually burrows out the other side, reclaiming the wilderness as a reservoir of lost memories.