Rating in Stars: *** (out of ****)
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, Yauenkü Migue
Director: Ciro Guerra
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 2:05
Release Date: 02/17/16 (New York)
The religious fervor of the tribal West collides with the scientific discovery of the colonial East in Embrace of the Serpent, co-writer/director Ciro Guerra’s take on the Old World’s resistance toward the influence of the New by way of a kind of parable structure. At one end of a time frame, we have an explorer disappearing into the jungles along the border between Colombia and Brazil. At the other end, we have another scientist retracing his steps. It’s a way for the region to comment upon its own history, as these stories are based in truth. Guerra and co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal (taking inspiration from a diary written by its protagonists’ real-life counterparts Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes) weave an intriguing tale rife with symbolism and haunting imagery.
In what we will call the “present day” (Although the screenwriters don’t put a specific date on the proceedings, these events took place roughly in the late 1940s), an explorer named Evan (Brionne Davis) searches the banks of the Amazon for traces of Theo (Jan Bivoet), a scientist who came upon this area in forty years previously and never returned from what was to be an exploratory trip. An elderly villager named Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) meets Evan rather coincidentally, having done the same with Theo perhaps upon that very shore. As Karamakate reluctantly helps Evan on the search, he recalls the time the “other white” arrived, very ill and in the care of a guide named Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), and asked Karamakate’s younger self (Nilbio Torres) to aid his own search for the yakruna plant (something which will cure his illness).
Interpersonal conflict of some sort exists within these characters from the moment many of them interact with each other. Skin color separates both Theo and, later, Evan from Karamakate by virtue of preconceptions on each person’s part. Both white explorers are wholly unprepared for the primitive lifestyle of the natives whom they encounter and with whom they travel. In the past, Theo, Manduca, and Karamakate come upon a settlement wherein the Christian faith is taught to children with such rigor that the priest whips the boy who welcomes outsiders into their midst. In the present, Evan and Karamakate encounter a tribe whose leader has convinced them that he is Jesus Christ incarnate, come to be married to a young, dying girl he insists be healed by Theo the scientist and to be given the cure to their own, likely nonexistent illness.
This latter encounter exhibits a problem shared by the film’s second half, which conflates symbolism with a kind of thematic opacity that makes much of it hard to pin down in any significant way. The business with the plant for which Theo is searching inspires an acid trip of sorts (the only instance of color in a film that is quite effectively shot by cinematographer David Gallego in stark, black-and-white hues), but it isn’t quite established what purpose the climax of the journey (which then cuts to credits rather insignificantly) holds.
It is also, ultimately, less relevant to the film’s impact as a cinematic effort. Flashbacks are an iffy tool to utilize and even more so to execute in a way that doesn’t make them feel like a gimmick. Here, they are used to inform Karamakate’s past; the shared performances by Bolivar and Torres are both very good at conveying a weariness with the world and with the West. Bivoet is also a highlight in this ensemble as Theo, whose fate is as uncertain as his real-life counterpart’s, the actor compelling in his portrayal of a sick man trying to make his mark. Embrace of the Serpent, in spite of its drawbacks, proves in this regard an unexpectedly tender treatise on the inadvertent marriage of two sides of civilization.