Beyond a rapid winnowing in size, a place like the Amazon rainforest hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years, retaining an essential wildness that governs its secluded corners far more completely than any government could. The land contained therein may be circumscribed within certain national borders, but those lines become essentially meaningless when applied to the primal agelessness of the forest, the mighty river that also bears its name, and the myriad plants and animals that make up its dominion. A film like Embrace of the Serpent acknowledges the amorphous nature of such boundaries, and delights in teasing out the points at which they overlap, where the rules of one place intersect messily with another. Tracing two different journeys, one in the first decade of the 20th century, another about 30 years later, it depicts an untamed jungle region at the crossroads of change–New World, Old World and primeval forces all clashing to determine who will define the future of this indefinable environment.

The two stories here are both drawn from historical records, which set the stage for a loose adaptation that skews more toward the mystical than the factual. The first concerns the 1909 journey of German professor Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), whose eventual death in the jungle is later described to another rare visitor to the region. This is Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), an idealistic botanist who may have some other motives up his sleeve beyond an unambiguous love of flora. Both are seeking the flower of the yakruna plant, the former for health reasons—he’s dying of an unspecified jungle ailment and can only be healed by the plant’s curative properties—the latter for more mysterious reasons. Both men are guided by prickly recluse Karamakate (played in the first segment by Nilbio Torres, by Antonio Bolivar in the second), a Cohiuano shaman clad only in a loincloth and an elaborate bone necklace.

As introduced in the first segment, Karamakate is convinced he’s the last of his people, hiding out in a remote spot since a deadly raid by the Colombians left him orphaned as a child. In the second, he is stooped with age but still resilient, now fully assured in his isolation, as the old traditions further into hazy legend. With Karamakate as an anchor, these two time periods intermingle, moving back and forth against each other like the currents of the Amazon, which cuts its way significantly through all aspects of both stories. The structure is similar to Radu Jude’s recent Aferim!, except here the tale of embattled progress is told via a narrative that interweaves two entangled but temporally distant scenarios, instead of focusing on one which moves implacably forward. Both films, however, share an adept use of crisp digital black and white in portraying a gallery of grotesques, formed from an anecdotal, peripatetic collection of stories about human progress and decay. Here, rather than a slave child carted across the steppes and forests of 19th century Romania, its outlander ‘whites’ and their native guides, encountering syncretic Christ cults, half-mad Capuchin monks, passive-aggressive natives and the general damage and detritus left by rapacious rubber barons. There are hallucinogenic fugue episodes, a la Kubrick’s 2001, and a full litany of tricks, ruses and double-crosses. All this in a sui generis period travelogue that approaches its subject material from several legitimately novel angles.

The key figure of this scintillating, expansive study in duality is the titular serpent, a mythic figure of creation and destruction, which gets linked firmly both to Karamakate’s chosen people and the white destroyers who seek to bend the power of the rainforest to their own greedy ends. Pivoting away from a Herzog-style view of this wild space as a merciless and chaotic proving ground for dreamers and maniacs, Guerra instead approaches it from a native perspective. Embrace of the Serpent thus yields a much richer portrait of the region than perhaps any before, infusing a fresh perspective and rich imagistic style into its slippery depiction of Heraclitean unity and flux.

  • She Dies Tomorrow

    Seimetz has, above all else, made a thrilling, pseudo-horror film about the inescapability…
  • Oeuvre: Hayao Miyazaki: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

    A clear line in the sand between the Ghibli approach to animated storytelling versus that …
  • The Fight

    The Fight focuses on four landmark cases and the lawyers defending our established civil l…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

From the Vaults of Streaming Hell: Alexandria…Why?

Elucidates why some nations might imagine invasion as a form of liberation, freeing them f…