The ravages of colonialism cast a dark pall over the stunning South American landscape in “Embrace of the Serpent,” the latest visual astonishment from the gifted Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra. Charting two parallel journeys deep into the Amazon, each one undertaken by a European explorer and a local shaman, this bifurcated narrative delivers a fairly comprehensive critique of the destruction of indigenous cultures at the hands of white invaders, and if Guerra somewhat exhausts his insights before the end of its two-hour-plus running time, there’s no denying the film’s chastening moral conviction or the transfixing power of its black-and-white imagery. At once blistering and poetic, not just an ethnographic study but also a striking act of cinematic witness, “Serpent” should continue to garner critical and audience acclaim on the festival trail following its top Directors’ Fortnight prize at Cannes.
“Impossible to describe in words its beauty and splendor,” the Dutch explorer Theodor von Martins wrote of the Colombian Amazon in 1909, and no words are needed in light of David Gallego’s majestic lensing, his widescreen compositions capturing a lush rainforest setting in sharp, exquisitely subtle shades of monochrome. A young shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) squats beside a river, waiting and watchful, as two other men approach in a boat: Theo (Jan Bijvoet), a German explorer, and Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos), his local guide. It’s sometime during the early 1900s, and Theo, grievously and mysteriously ill, is searching for the yakuna, an exceedingly rare flower that could heal him of his sickness. Although he alone knows how to find the coveted plant, Karamakate is none too eager to help one of the white men whose violent ways have made him the very last of his kind, and he similarly resents natives like Manduca, who submitted peacefully to their invaders and freely adopted Western customs.
But when Theo offers to help Karamakate find the surviving remnant of his tribe, the wary shaman agrees to help, initiating a treacherous journey that will take the three men ever deeper into the wilderness while throwing their personal and cultural differences into sharp relief. Some mild thawing and bonding occurs: Karamakate gives Theo regular applications of an herbal medicine (by way of a blowdart to the nostrils), even as he lectures the ailing ethnologist on the uselessness of his worldly possessions (“They’re just things”) and the importance of living in harmony with nature, namely by abstaining from eating fish or meat.
His warnings will be corroborated by the devastating evidence they encounter along the way — starting with a grove of rubber trees where they come face-to-face with the human and environmental consequences of the white man’s presence in the Amazon, and climaxing at a Catholic mission where a Spanish priest rules over indigenous children who were orphaned amid the violence and human-rights abuses of the rubber trade. In this eerie compound, the fanatical clergyman insists on saving the souls of his young charges, clothing them in white robes, forbidding them to speak their “pagan languages,” and cruelly whipping them as he deems fit; it’s the story’s most blood-boiling and dramatic episode, and it drives home the film’s moral argument in no uncertain terms. At the same time, Guerra’s script (co-written with Jacques Toulemonde) offers a rich understanding of the contradictions of the colonial legacy, as when Theo rages at the natives who have stolen his compass: He’s angry that the discovery of such technology will mean the loss of one more piece of their culture, yet Karamakate rightly calls him out for romanticizing them, as if their ignorance were a sign of their purity.
Its evocative title illustrated (if not fully demystified) by occasional closeups of a snake and its prey, “Embrace of the Serpent” occasionally flashes forward to another expedition undertaken in the 1940s, when a much older Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar Salvado Yangiama) reluctantly accompanies another explorer, an American named Evans (Brionne Davis), on a similar trek downriver in search of the yakruna. (Guerra’s script, co-written with Jacques Toulemonde, was inspired by the real-life accounts of Theodor Koch-Gruenberg and Richard Evans Schultes, alter egos for the Western explorers we meet here.) This secondary thread is less harrowing and more elegiac in tone, sounding a sad, lonely lament for a lost civilization and a cruelly plundered landscape, brooded over by a older, wiser and wearier Karamakate whose resignation has not stunted his righteous indignation.
Smoothly and absorbingly edited by Etienne Boussac and Cristina Gallego, the film would nonetheless benefit from occasional tightening, its digressions and longueurs occasionally moving beyond the lyrical and into the belabored. Nevertheless, as a vision of the past, “Embrace of the Serpent” offers a stately, striking panorama and an entirely persuasive one, its wild Herzogian majesty bespeaking an intense level of commitment across the board, from the roundly fine performances (encompassing no fewer than nine languages) to the vividly detailed contributions of production designer Cesar Rodriguez to the intensely atmospheric sound design by Carlos Garcia. Guerra, whose earlier “Wind Journeys” revealed a similarly keen sense of place, clearly recognizes that we are more likely to grasp his point if we feel not just persuaded, but transported. His poignant closing dedication is to those “peoples whose song we will never know,” but to watch his film is, on a meaningful level, to know it better.