Two Western explorers go upriver through the Amazonian jungle of Colombia in “Embrace of the Serpent,” in search of knowledge of the indigenous peoples living there. They essentially lose themselves in the course of their searching.
One man, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), makes the journey in 1909. The other, Evan (Brionne Davis), retraces Theo’s passage 40 years later, seeking to solve the mystery of the first man’s disappearance.
Both make the trip in the company of a native shaman, played by Nilbio Torres in the 1909 sections and Antonio Bolivar Salvador as the elderly version of the character. Both actors are themselves natives of the region, and although they have never acted in a movie before, their performances are forceful and deeply moving.
The shaman, Karamakate, is a reluctant guide, a brooding observer and a tragic figure. He’s the last of his tribe, a symbol of the holocaust Europeans inflicted on the native peoples of Latin America since colonial times, decimating their populations with disease and exploitation. Evocatively shot in black and white in the Colombian rain forest, the picture — which was nominated for an Oscar — plays out like a variation on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
Theo and Evan are based on actual individuals: Theodor Koch-Grunberg, a German ethnologist and explorer, and Richard Evans Schultes, an American biologist. Both traveled to the Amazon to study the native peoples, and in Evans’ case to learn about hallucinogenic plants used by the natives for healing and ceremonial purposes.
Colombian director/co-writer Ciro Guerra (Jacques Toulemonde shares screenplay credit) used the explorers’ journals as the jumping-off point for his highly fictionalized and symbol-fraught story of a clash of cultures.
Disease plagues the journey of Theo, weakened and quaking with fever from the opening, then revived but not cured by medicinal treatments he receives from Karamakate.
Encumbered with trunks of supplies and papers, the men are obliged to shed the accouterments of civilization — to literally throw them over the side of their dugout canoes into the Amazonian waters — as they go farther upstream, a process that finds them returning ever more closely to a state of nature.
Throughout, the fragility of the native cultures and of the rain-forest environment that is their home is underscored by Guerra in this fascinating, melancholy movie.
Embrace of the Serpent
☆☆☆☆out of 5
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar Salvador, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis.
Director: Ciro Guerra.
Running time: 2:05.
Rated: Not rated, for mature audiences (contains adult themes, disturbing images).
Note: In Spanish and various indigenous languages, with English subtitles.