In the early 1900s, a young shaman (Nilbio Torres) in the Colombian Amazon helps a sick German explorer (Jan Bijvoet) and his local guide (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) search for a rare healing plant.
Excellent interview with the director of Embrace of The Serpent:
Review from IndieWire
Cannes Review: ‘Embrace Of The Serpent’ Is A Soulful, Strange And Stunning Discovery
A few minutes into Colombian director Ciro Guerra‘s “Embrace of the Serpent” we have met three of its four main characters, and they have encountered each other. In black and white, period-set images of the Amazonian jungle reminiscent of Miguel Gomes‘ “Tabu,” a canoe carrying a gravely ill white man, Theo (“Borgman” star Jan Bijvoet), is punted onto the bank by the loyal native tribesman who serves as his traveling companion. On the bank stands a lone tribal shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), whose painted face, loin cloth, feathered armbands, phallic-looking necklace and erect, impassive stance seem an unspoken rebuke to the western-clothed native who has come to plead with Karamakate to save his white friend’s life. That rebuke is soon spoken, however, in no uncertain terms: Karamakate has nothing but loathing for the white man who wiped out his tribe, and nothing but contempt for a native who might abet one of their number.
But Theo, an explorer/scientist/anthropologist, offers Karamakate perhaps the only thing in all the mystical universes that might change his mind: the slender hope that members of his tribe survive and Theo knows where to find them. In a rage of confusion, Karamakate runs off and petulantly destroys the inside of his hut, before returning to the men and agreeing to nurse Theo, provided they lead him back to the remnants of his people. It is a human moment that points to the remarkable job Guerra does throughout of making the tragic, unforgettable figure of Karamakate, who is played by two different actors in the film’s two different time periods, both unknowably foreign and exotic in culture, yet totally human and relatable in motivation and psychology. Just a few minutes in, the viewer is entirely submerged in this fantastical, quasi-mythical, soul-crushing yet often very funny story.
Somewhere between a rebel yell and a lullaby, a primal scream and a Homeric lament, “Embrace of the Serpent” is the kind of wildly original work that the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight sidebar was built in hopes of discovering. The making of the film, according to the director’s short preamble prior to the screening, was an arduous, drawn-out process — yet again, it seems that filming in the Amazon region “Fitzcarraldo“-style, presented its very specific set of physical and psychological challenges. Yet none of the arduousness behind-the-scenes shows in the final film, which unfolds with a stunning directorial sureness (and this is only Guerra’s third feature) and a layered intelligence that at times lands an insight so wincingly wise and true it takes your breath away. So, when Theo becomes angry when a tribal chief steals his compass, because he fears the technology will erode the native know-how of celestial navigation, Karamakate skewers his condescension, saying simply “You cannot forbid them to learn.”
Because the backdrop against which both strands of the story unfold is the disappearance of the native tribes, and the shocking crimes against humanity that the white settlers perpetrated on them in the name of the rubber industry. These men invaded and ravaged the lands the natives had lived in concert with for centuries, stole their know-how, and subjugated entire peoples into the most vicious slavery, brought to horrifying life in one of the film’s most nightmarish sequences.
The story is set first in the early 1900s and then in the 1940s, when Karamakate (played as an older man by Antonio Bolivar) again encounters a white man seeking his help: plant enthusiast, Evan (Brionne Davis), who has read Theo’s book and comes in search of the rare flower, the Yakruna, that cured him. But it’s not only the infrequent shifts between the two strands that lend an unusual edge to the style. The luscious black and white photography from DP David Gallego is never just pretty, there is always something unsettling and dark lurking in its corners, a sense aided by a spectacularly evocative sound design from Carlos Garcia.
But most of all, Guerra’s storytelling, inspired by the writings of two real-life pioneering Amazon explorers, on whom his two white characters are loosely based, seethes with an authenticity and immediacy that it’s hard to remember many other period films achieving. Which is not to say there are no missteps: When Evan and Karamakate return to the mission site to discover an isolated cult with a self-declared Messiah in charge, it becomes an all-out horror movie very quickly. Now, as a self-contained segment, it is brilliant and terrifying, but it feels out of place tonally with the rest of the film. And it is also just a little long, even before it goes full-on “2001” in a color hallucination sequence late on, with the shaman’s spell it casts wearing off just fractionally before it ends.
But these reservations stack up to nothing at all next to the unearthly beauty of this film, and its ancient, soulful wisdom, shot through with a colossal sadness. While it may deal in massive ideas about colonialism, genocide, religious hypocrisy and the legacy of resource exploitation in one of the most primal places on Earth, Guerra’s talent is to funnel all that background into an intimate, deeply felt story of four individual men and two canoes.
“Embrace of the Serpent” is simply a work of art, and one of the most singular cinematic experiences you could hope to have in Cannes, or anywhere really. It’s an absorbing, even thrilling head trip. It is a Heart-of-Darkness voyage of discovery. It is a lament for all the lost plants and peoples of the world. But it will maybe live longest for me in Karamakate: an immaculate portrait of the unfathomable loneliness and crushing survivor’s guilt that comes with being the last of one’s kind.
Mark Kermode – The Observer – 5/5
This extraordinary, hypnotic work by Colombian director Ciro Guerra seems at first glance to be a dreamy inversion of the themes of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, turning a generic heart of darkness into a crucible of light, as seen from the perspective of indigenous Amazonian tribespeople. Mixing fact and fiction in fable-like fashion, Guerra’s third feature (which secured Colombia’s first Oscar nomination for best foreign language film) offers both a bold indictment of colonial imperialism and a powerful celebration of disappearing cultures.
Described by its creator as “an attempt to build a bridge between western and Amazonian storytelling”, this achieves an astonishing sense of universality while focusing on a world from which most viewers have traditionally been alienated. Shot on location in the jungles of Vaupés, but with none of the cultural tourism that often blights such projects, Guerra’s honest, impassioned, inventive film coils itself around its audience in a transcendent cinematic embrace.
Although fictional, the screenplay by Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde draws on the journals of two real-life explorers: German ethnobotanist Theodor Koch-Grünberg and American botanist Richard Evans Schultes. Versions of both figures appear in the bifurcated narrative, which intertwines two tales of white explorers, separated by decades, venturing into the Colombian Amazon. Jan Bijvoet is Théodor von Martius, a Herzogian figure in search of the healing yakruna plant, which may cure him of a fatal illness. Brionne Davis is Evan, a man who does not dream, and who hopes that the same plant may somehow heal his ailing soul.
Our true focus, however, is Karamakate, the warrior-shaman who guides both men, played in his younger, more fiery years by Nilbio Torres, and in dissolute later life by Antonio Bolívar. Having lost his tribe, believed to have been wiped out by rubber barons, the ageing Karamakate fears that he has become a “chullachaqui” – an ‘empty, hollow’ version of himself that has “no memories”, but “drifts around in the world… lost in time without time”. Crucially, it is through Karamakate’s eyes that we come to view the unfolding narrative, reversing the colonial modes that have exoticised the jungle as merely a maddening subset of European or north American experience.
Skilfully fusing the apparently logical manmade narratives of its western explorers with the animal imagery and fluid time-structures of Amazonian myth (the title invokes celestial beings descending to earth on a giant anaconda), Guerra conjures a complex landscape that straddles the divide between dreamy invention, ethnographic document and socio-political tract. “You are not one – you are two men,” Karamakate tells Evan as he retraces Théo’s steps, apparently perceiving his separate companions to be two incarnations of the same soul. Such coexistence is central to the film’s own form, with images of persistent water uniting distant time periods; past, present and future flowing together in a single unending stream, separate boats on the same river.
Memories (both present and absent) flow back and forth through this story. When Théo and his companion Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) seek supplies at an upriver Catholic mission, they find “orphans of the rubber wars” being beaten into forgetting their native tongue by a priest who claims to be saving them from “cannibalism and ignorance”. “Don’t let our song fade away,” Karamakate tells the young boys, a phrase mournfully echoed in the closing dedication. Music is a key element, with Evan refusing to abandon the clumsy gramophone that reconnects him with his own ancestry, even as he strives to become the “vagabond of dreams” of whom Karamakate has spoken so intensely. Nascuy Linares’s complex compositions mix what sound like field recordings of indigenous song with more contemporary instrumentation, blending seamlessly with Carlos García’s natural, ambient sound design.
David Gallego’s breathtaking 35mm cinematography lends widescreen monochrome beauty, even during a horrifying sequence in which a Kurtzian figure declares himself to be “the messiah and saviour of the Indians – the only sacred thing in this jungle!”
“This is a memory, a moment that passed,” says Théo of the photographs he takes, and one might conclude that Guerra’s moving picture is just that – an evocation of something that has gone, remaining only in ghostly form. Yet there is such vivid life in this film; an artifice perhaps (Guerra’s work echoes some of the philosophies, if not the forms, of Chilean film-maker Patricio Guzmán’s documentaries) but as real and vibrant as anything I have seen on screen. I was utterly mesmerised, captivated and transported.