The Embrace of the Serpent (2016) is an ambitious and beautifully executed film directed by the Columbian, Cirro Guerro. Made in lustrous black and white, the movie is frustrating because it is very close to being a great film. The picture can't quite achieve the epiphany that it seeks -- and, indeed, I think the ending succumbs to a bit of woozy, fortune-cookie mysticism. But the attempt is noble and the film's integrity is noteworthy. I just wish the director and screenwriter had come up with something slightly better than the 2001 style light-show in the film's penultimate scene.
The Embrace of the Serpent derives it's power from a narrative structure that intercuts two periods of time separated by about thirty-five years -- this device allows the viewers to see how the main character has aged in the intervening years and lets us assess the effects of events occurring in the first time frame on the later history of the people shown in the movie. The passage of time represented in films is always inherently moving -- the great Andrei Tarkovsky said that filmmaking is "sculpting in time" and one need to think of the bone becoming a space-craft in 2001 or the Frisbee signifying a lapse of forty-years in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America to recall how powerfully, and profoundly, movies can shape our perception of time and its ravages. In 1906, an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate is approached by another Indian acting as the servant of a white man, a dying German named Theodor von Martius. Martius' servant asks Karamakate, who may be the last survivor of his people, to heal the German. Karamakate hates the Whites and, at firsts, refuses. But he sees an omen -- a capybara plunges into a stream in front of him, and this apparently persuades him to help the German. Later, it becomes apparent that the German ethnologist and the shaman have some kind of mystical link: the German has dreamed the same dream that motivates the Shaman. Karamakate tells the German and his servant that there is a powerful healing plant called the Yakruna that grows at a place called the "workshop of the Gods" and he agrees to guide the white man to that place. The film then adopts the classical structure of Aguirre and Apocalypse Now, a journey upriver through a landscape devastated by war and madness. White men have invaded the jungle and enslaved the natives, torturing them into producing rubber on great plantations. Many of the tribes that once inhabited the rain forest have been exterminated and there is some kind of pointless war underway, apparently between Peru and Columbia. On the way upriver, Karamakate keeps the German alive by insufflicating him with some kind of powder, probably a kind of cocaine. The small expedition of three men have various encounters with people living in remote outposts along the river -- they meet a horribly mutilated native who is tending rubber trees for his masters (the man begs that they kill him), a Capuchin priest who is maintaining a kind of brutal orphanage for the children of the tribes that have been annihilated and, at last, reach a ruinous fort where the local people are all drunk on rum and Yakruna has been debased into a kind of recreational drug. The Columbians attack the fort and the people all dive into the river, vainly hoping to swim away from the carnage. Karamakate sees that the holy Yakruna is being misused and burns the last tree bearing the sacred, hallucinogenic blossoms. The German violates one of Karamakate's taboos, eating fish in the wrong lunar season, and dies horribly of seizures in the jungle. This story is intercut with a "modern" narrative: a specialist of jungle flora from Boston has come to the Amazon to find the Yakruna plant, thought to be associated with a high-grade of rubber needed for the war effort -- this story seems to take place in 1941. The scientist encounters Karamakate, now an old man, living alone in the jungle. He persuades Karamakate to lead him upriver to search for the sacred Yakruna. In this quest, Karamakate, now a hollow and embittered man, asserts that the white man will have to be his guide -- he argues that the diaries preserved from the 1906 expedition will have to lead them since Karamakate has become empty and has lost his soul: he says that he is a chullachagui, that is a body without a spirit, a shadow of himself, something like a mere photograph compared with the actual, authentic man. Traveling upriver, the two men encounter a savage religious cult led by a self-proclaimed Messiah -- this is what remains of the Christian orphanage after the Capuchin father was discredited for his cruelty to the boys living in the place. The Messiah is surrounded by masked men dressed as inquisitors and he crucifies children along the river to mark the boundaries of his domain. Karamakate cures the Messiah's sick wife, a teenage girl with leishmaniasis, and, then, poisons the cult members with a psychedelic potion that causes them to literally devour the flesh of the Messiah --it's like Martin Sheen killing Brando in the end of Apocalypse Now. The travelers reach a bizarre landscape of huge dome-shaped peaks of black rock rising above the river. On one of those peaks, the last Yakruna plant in the world is found. Karamakate brews some Yakruna tea and the two men drink it, experiencing spectacular hallucinations. (These hallucinations involve envisioning the river as a great, scaly serpent and, then, an intergalactic tour after the manner of the last couple reels of 2001 are filmed in vibrant, super-saturated color.) In the morning, the Bostonian scientist awakes with a hangover and Karamakate has vanished. The movie is packed with strange events, visionary encounters, and spectacular imagery of wild animals -- a jaguar symbolizes death to the German and we see the animal's impassive eyes in enormous close-ups, an anaconda gives birth to babies, some of which the jaguar devours. As in Fitzcarraldo, the hero carries a phonograph with him up the river and, in this film, listens to Haydn's Creation -- Karamakate tells the White Man that the music is the voice of his ancestors speaking to him from the dream-time. The scenes with the religious cult are terrifying and the landscapes, of course, have an extraordinary, almost dream-like vividness. When an Indian steals a compass from Martius, the German tries to recover the instrument saying that if the natives rely upon the compass to find their way they will lose their own sense of direction in the forest. But Karamakate reproaches him, saying that "Knowledge belongs to all men", a theme reprised in the end of the film when Karamakate entrusts the sacred wisdom the Yakruna blossom to the scientist from Boston. The first forty minutes of the film is very powerful: in particular, a scene in which the old Karamakate weeps in his hammock because he has become a mere chullachagui, a simulacra for a man, is extremely effective -- Karamakate says that he can't even make the healing cocaine mixture that he used to keep the German upright for so many weeks any longer. And the scientist from Boston, who has read the journals of the German, actually has to make the cocaine powder based on what he has learned about the first expedition in the diaries that were brought of the jungle by Martius' servant. The movie is remarkable for most of its length. However, it's inconclusive and, as might be expected the psychedelic imagery in the last few minutes, although colorful, can't really provide the audience with the visionary impact that the experience is supposed to have on the man from Boston. The film is remarkable and, of course, well worth seeing -- you should seek it out -- but it's slightly disappointing in that the movie's promise in its first few minutes isn't exactly kept.