Film / Reviews

'Embrace of the Serpent': Amid the poisons of colonization

While Leonardo DiCaprio’s masochistic lead performance garnered greater acclaim, perhaps the most striking aspect of “The Revenant” was the diligence it showed in telling the Native American side of the story. Yet for all the scenes of authentic Arikara dialogue, the indigenous characters in Alejandro G. Inarritu’s film were never more than sketches — bit players in a white man’s revenge tale.

“The Embrace of the Serpent” (“El Abrazo de la Serpiente”), by the Colombian director Ciro Guerra, offers a much juicier depiction of how the colonization of the New World was viewed by the people being colonized. Far removed from the wintery Pacific-Northwest wilds of “The Revenant,” it plunges into the lush depths of the Amazon rainforest, traversing a region that’s still unfamiliar to most Colombians today.

The film’s story hinges around a pair of real-life figures, German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American botanist Richard Evans Schultes, whose writings provide some of the only records of Amazonian tribes and customs that have long since disappeared. However, its main protagonist is a fictional shaman, Karamakate (played, as a younger and older man; respectively, by Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar Salvador), who lives a solitary existence that’s informed as much by his dreams as the physical reality around him.

Embrace of the Serpent (Samayoeru Kawa)
Rating
Run Time 124 mins
Language SPANISH, PORTUGUESE, GERMAN, CUBEO, HUITOTO, TICUNA, WANANO, LATIN, ENGLISH
Opens NOW SHOWING

In the earlier of the film’s timelines, set at the beginning of the 20th century, Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) seeks out Karamakate in hope of finding treatment for a serious illness. The shaman is naturally suspicious of this clumsy Caucasian interloper and his indigenous companion, a former slave named Manduca (Yauenku Migue). However, he eventually agrees to accompany the pair in search of yakruna, the sacred plant that can cure the German’s ailment.

A few decades later, Schultes (Brionne Davis) tracks down the aged Karamakate, bringing with him a copy of Koch-Grunberg’s posthumously published diaries. The botanist is also hoping to find yakruna, but he’s more interested in its hallucinogenic properties than any purported health benefits. However, he discovers that Karamakate has all but lost his memory after too many years spent alone: He has become what’s known in the Amazon as a chullachaqui, a hollow spirit.

These two stories occasionally overlap, most audaciously in a single tracking shot where the camera drifts across the water from the younger Karamakate’s boat to find his older self, plying the same river. But they blend in more subtle ways too: While Karamakate is a common thread, it gradually becomes clear that he sees Koch-Grunberg and Schultes as a single person too. Both physically and spiritually, the American is completing a journey that his German predecessor was unable to finish.

The parallel voyages travel through land scarred by the rubber industry and other ravages of colonization. The younger Karamakate and his companions stumble across a Catholic mission, where a priest claims to be saving the natives from lives of “cannibalism and ignorance.” Later, they witness the entire population of a village flee into the river to escape an oncoming army.

Shot on 35-mm monochrome film by cinematographer David Gallego, the visuals occasionally resemble the pictures captured by earlier explorers, but they’re more apt to recall the high-contrast landscapes of photographer Sebastiao Salgado. Dialogue flits between multiple European and Amazonian languages, often switching mid-conversation, complemented by some subtly disorienting sound design.

It’s a potent blend: a psychedelic post-colonial pilgrimage with shades of Glauber Rocha, Werner Herzog and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

“When I came back to my senses, I had become another man,” wrote Koch-Grunberg, in a passage that’s quoted at the beginning of the film. After two hours in the company of this intoxicating, metaphysical drama, you may feel the same way too.

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