One of the (mostly) undisputed entrants into the cannon of English literature is Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness.” To call this book heavy would be an understatement given that it takes a deep dive into both the psychology of its protagonist and by extension that of the western world given its unflinching look at the legacy of Western exploitation in Africa. For a while I viewed it as one of the most powerful critiques of colonialism ever written despite its flawed depictions of actual Africans until I studied it in college and realized that it wasn’t a critique of colonialism so much as conquest and that it mostly stood to legitimate the more “benevolent” form of colonialism perpetrated by Conrad’s native Britain. Either way, “Heart of Darkness” casts a long shadow and pretty much any book or movie that depicts a river journey into a jungle while dealing with the downsides of Western colonialism is probably going to have some relation to that book. Enter Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, which is certainly not an adaptation of “Heart of Darkness” but is almost certainly in dialogue with it and takes a decidedly more 21st century look at its themes and brings a couple other ideas of its own to the table.
Embrace of the Serpent is set in the Columbian Amazon and intercuts between two separate but connected stories set in 1909 and 1940 respectively. The first deals with a German ethnologist named Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) who is traveling with a local named Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) whose tribe has been slowly taking on western ways. The two encounter an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), among the last of his tribe, who reluctantly agrees to lead them to a rare plant called the yakuna that has strange hallucinogenic properties but could also cure Theo of an illness that he’s contracted. Thirty years later this same shaman (now played by Antonio Bolívar) also agrees to lead an American botanist named Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) to this same flower, retracing the steps of that previous journey and seeing the further degradation that colonialism has wrought on the native communities.
Both Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes are real historical figures, but to the best of my knowledge Karamakate is a fictional character and this film is by and large a fictional story, albeit one that’s rooted in the actual realities of what was going on in this area at the time. It quickly becomes clear that the rubber-barons have done a number on the local population and that other more seemingly well intentioned white people like missionaries seem to do just as much harm without realizing what they’re doing. Having said that, I don’t want to give the impression that this film is just a parade of imperialist horrors because there’s a lot more going on as well. For one thing, it’s an interesting look at these two white guys who were by all accounts a couple of the “good guys” to come out of interactions between natives and Europeans but nonetheless have plenty to learn and who occasionally aren’t sure what the best way to help the Amazonians without being patronizing and aren’t quite sure how much to embrace their teachings. The real protagonist of the movie though is Karamakate, who is the common bond between the two storylines and who is fascinatingly different in both time periods and who struggles with how to react to all the awful changes around him.
Director Ciro Guerra has opted to film Embrace of the Serpent in black and white which proved to be a canny choice for a number of reasons. Partly I think this was a smart way to impart the period the film is set in, something that would have been slightly obscured otherwise given the absence of cars and western hairstyles and other usual signifiers of setting. More importantly I think Guerra was trying to suck out some of the beauty from the rainforest scenery, which is necessary because this isn’t supposed to be some kind of exotic travelogue for the audience to vicariously enjoy. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some really breathtaking bits of landscape here because they’re totally are, but the way they’re photographed makes the area seem less like they belong in a colander and more like they belong in a history book. In addition to filming in monochrome Guerra makes a number of other canny choices like choosing the perfect visual language to transition between the two timelines and his excellent attention to period detail in the scenes that do have manmade structures.
The two elements that really sets the movie aside from the likes of The Mission and even Aguirre, the Wrath of God are its spiritual and psychedelic elements, which are probably the two things that I probably found the hardest to get a grasp of on an initial viewing. Central to the film is a hallucinogenic drug which would seem to be the Amazonian equivalent of peyote. Karamakate and his people believe the visions imparted by this substance to be visions sent by the gods or something and the movie kind of goes along with this. It’s always a challenge for secular-minded liberals like myself us to question the validity of indigenous religions in much the way we’d question major western religions given how often these people were persecuted for these beliefs and this has led to a lot of New Age hooey over the years, but this movie does a pretty good job of staying just on the right side of all of that and does a good job of addressing the honest minded skepticism of the two westerners. Honestly though I’m still probably going to struggle a bit with that element of the film and if someone asked me to explain the film’s ending and a few other sections I’m not necessarily going to be able to give a satisfying answer, but to some extent I think that’s intentional: there are some things that most modern westerners just aren’t going to be able to understand and that’s okay.
Some of the film’s dialogue could maybe be punched up just a little and while all the performances are serviceable I can’t say they were standouts. Despite that the film more than makes up for that both in ambition and sheer originality. Embrace of the Serpent is exactly the kind of movie we’re all looking for out of modern cinema: something with just the right mix of technical ambition, insights into the human condition, and political ideas that are intelligent without being didactic. It isn’t every day that a film comes along that feels this dissimilar from all the other ongoing trends in cinema while being this confident and assured in what it’s doing. It hits that perfect sweet spot where a movie is artistic and unique while still giving its audience plenty to grasp onto and allowing for a certain degree of entertainment value along the way.