If the primary gift offered by foreign films is exposure to perspectives and cultures entirely different from our own, then director Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent must rank among the most generous films in memory. It's the first narrative film shot in the Colombian Amazon in 30 years and the first Colombian film to feature a main character drawn from the region's ancient indigenous peoples. But what truly sets apart Embrace of the Serpent is Guerra's heroic effort to tell the story from his indigenous protagonist's point of view.
Set during the rubber boom of the early 20th century — in which Western powers harvested trees in the Amazon rainforest and massacred and enslaved indigenous people who stood in their way — Embrace of the Serpent was inspired by the journals of two Western scientists more than a generation apart who searched the Amazon for a sacred and hard-to-find hallucinogenic plant known as yakruna.
Though the story centers on a last-of-his-kind Amazonian shaman named Karamakate, Guerra's film isn't interested in "accurate" depictions of worlds known to us through memoirs written by outsiders. It seeks larger truths through an artistic reimagining of spiritual life in the Amazon under threat of imminent extinction — a world once comprising 400 distinct languages and cultures.
Guerra spent four years preparing to shoot Embrace of the Serpent. Much of that time was spent in the company of what remains of native communities in the Amazon, people who were asked to shape the film in ways that memoirs and academic studies cannot. The intertwining stories involve the shaman at two different points in his life as he contends with scientists who may or may not be participants in the destruction of his world. It's so unusual to experience a story of this type not told from the intrepid white explorers' perspective that it takes some time to make sense of it and to understand we are seeing something new.
Guerra shot Embrace of the Serpent on 35mm black-and-white film (with the exception of one key sequence which required vibrant color), which enhances its otherworldly quality while demanding that viewers participate by using their imaginations to fill in visual detail. Stark and beautiful night scenes sometimes recall Hollywood film noir, which seems many worlds away.
From the dense buzzing of the jungle to the alternately silent and roaring river, the film's rich sound design draws us into the remote world of the rainforest. The presence of indigenous actors is unique and provides essential authenticity. The pace of the film may be slow, but there's no other way to enter the imposing landscape of the Amazon and savor its mysteries.
With its river journeys, episodic structure and hallucinatory aura, Embrace of the Serpent evokes Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. Both films depict the madness of laying waste to remote cultures while purportedly trying to save them through political or economic "progress." But Guerra's film finds an even higher purpose in rescuing our collective memory of a distant world otherwise lost to the ages.