‘Embrace of the Serpent’ avoids colonialist cliches

Embrace of the Serpent
Oscilloscope Laboratories

‘Embrace of the Serpent’
Ciro Guerra
Stars: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijovet
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

You may wish “Embrace of the Serpent” would go full Herzog. After all, it’s a jungle movie shot in the depths of the Amazon, the same general stomping grounds as “Fitzcarraldo,” and a hotspot ripe for some trippy tuning out. There’s a fair amount of spaciness, including a casually fractured narrative and a climactic riot of freaky colors right out of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But most of the time the film, by Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra, wants you to pay attention. Movies about exotic travel tend to reduce locals to unknowable Others. “Embrace of the Serpent” doesn’t want to do that. It may feature not one but two white men who serve as viewers’ handy guides, but the people they encounter receive equal footing. They’re painted as complicated individuals, not mere sights to be collected (or feared).

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Filmed in crisp black-and-white that activates the attention, it begins not on Western heroes but on Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), the last of the fictional Cohiuano people. It’s sometime in the early 20th century, and he’s worried about the invasion of fair-skinned outsiders, though not so much that he doesn’t, albeit grouchily, tend to Theo (Jan Bijovet, the striking star of “Borgman”), a malaria-stricken German scientist searching for the also fictional yakurna orchid, whose psychedelic powers he wishes to export or at least partake. Karamakate will take him up the river, just as he’ll do it again in middle age (when he’s played by Antonio Bolivar) with Theo’s less surly successor, Evan (Brionne Davis), who was inspired by the former’s expeditions to try it himself.

Both trips run parallel, the film jumping unremarked between the two eras. They feel similar but different, unfolding in a land that seems to exist outside of time even as it’s besieged upon by outsiders. Each iteration of Karamakate oscillates between gregarious and suspicious, explaining his ways to Theo and Evan (and us) one second, upbraiding them the next. He can seem motivated by mere whims. At one point the young version stands back as a tribe refuses to return Theo’s compass. Theo angrily points out that Western technology will muck up their deeply ingrained sense of travel. Karamakate snappily retorts that one shouldn’t keep knowledge away from them, even as he tries to uphold tradition.

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The two pairs’ travels turn rich and strange, even surreal and deadpan, as in an encounter with a missionary, with kids trained to croon Christmas hymns, and one with a European who’s convinced another group that he’s a version of Jesus, complete with a crown of thorns atop his shaggy head. “Embrace of the Serpent” can overexplain its nuances in dialogue or fall back on easy if amusing ironies, like a bit where Karamakate scolds a pack of orphans about not believing those “crazy tales” about Christians “eating the body of their gods.”

It doesn’t underline and italicize some of its other headier ideas. Unremarked upon is that this is a film struggling to recreate a people lost to history, whose existence has been “saved” by the very outsiders they feared would one day destroy them. Guerra knows the ethical concerns when it comes to representation, and he avoids a lot of the traps, partly by painting its German heroes as latent colonialists, partly by treating Karamakate and other natives as real people with three dimensions. It may not fully agree with Karamakate’s take on science, which is that dreams tells us more about the universe than what’s in front of us. But it entertains that he might have a point — that there may be limitations to the materialistic stance. And it does this by only sporadically giving way to Herzogian ecstasy, which, compared to “Embrace of the Serpent”’s clinical approach, seems downright bourgeois.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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