Thanks to Eli Roth's vile The Green Inferno, that culturally repugnant cannibal-porn romp released in September, we may comfortably dub Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent the best movie about the South American indigenous experience in 2015. Serpent, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, opens at the Cedar Lee Friday for a limited engagement.
It's a gorgeous film, for starters. Filmed in vivid black and white on the remotest banks of the Colombian Amazon, Serpent follows two expeditions downriver: one in 1909, the other some years later. Both hinge on the acquisition of the native yakruna, a plant with mystical healing powers. In the first, a malaria-stricken explorer, Theo (Jean Bijvoet), enlists the native Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) to lead him to the plant, lest he die. In the second, an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) guides an American botanist (played by Brionne Davis, a Ralph Fiennes-Bradley Cooper hybrid), for purposes that the American won't fully reveal until late in the film.
Throughout both journeys, the soundtrack of the natural world — chirping birds, roaring rapids, droning insects — immerse the viewer totally in the experience of the river and the jungle. It's like watching found footage from a mid-century ethnographic documentary (and about as fun too).
The cinematic effect, both visual and emotional, is essayistic, designed to remind us forcefully of colonialism's destructive powers. Even the jungle itself bears wounds from colonial incursions; everywhere, trees are lined with what look like musical staves, primed for producing a sap used to make rubber. The "rubber barons" are the unseen occupying force. In one horrific scene, Theo's original guide, the acculturated Manduca, who was bought by Theo from a rubber plantation, sees a copse of trees, all dripping sap into buckets. He kicks the buckets over in rage, howling heavenward at the rubber barons. A grotesquely mutilated man emerges from the jungle, trying with his one arm to salvage the rubber that has been kicked from the buckets and then begging the travelers to have mercy and kill him.
Though at times overly languorous (it's over two hours long), Serpent is structured around vignettes like the above that feel freighted with the same literary significance as the encounters in Apocalypse Now, and doubly so here, as they are often repeated in the second journey. In the movie's most bizarre encounter, the 1909 outfit stops at a mission run by a truculent priest with the hopes of restocking their supplies. The priest is the lone guardian of a native brood, orphans of tribes decimated by the rubber barons. The mission is deep in the jungle and the priest is clearly losing his mind, even as he loses his grip on the acolytes out of whom he nightly tries to beat the "savagery."
In the later river journey, Karamakate and Evan are imprisoned at the same mission. Now it is home to a crazed and self-flagellant cult. They wear sackcloth masks and sport unutterable hairdos. It's as if the Kurtz-worshippers in Apocalypse Now were rendered through the psychedelic mind of Alejandro Jodorowsky. "They are now the worst of both worlds," Karamakate says.
Based on the diaries of scientists Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes, Embrace of the Serpent has the feel of a film destined for the Criterion Collection. It's a weird and sumptuous travelogue, curious more than it is enjoyable, but an indispensable corrective to certain heroic colonial narratives. This one has at its center the solemn shaman Karamakate, "the last of his tribe," forced to bear witness as even the most well-intentioned whites can do little but rape and sully his home — the horror, the horror, indeed.