Ciro Guerra’s Academy Award-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent” follows Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), a solitary warrior living in the Amazon jungle, who helps an ill ethnologist/explorer Theodor Von Martins (Jan Bijvoet) and his companion Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) find a yakruna plant to help heal Theo’s sickness. Decades later, an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) helps an American named Evan (Brionne Davis) find the same plant for the purposes of “research.” Based on the diaries of two real explorers (Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes), these two narratives mainly explore colonialism’s dire impact on indigenous populations even when the interlopers have morally sound intentions, but also the constant struggle for culture to be remembered over time. Guerra’s film is the first to be shot on location in the Amazon Region of Colombia in decades, and the director uses the setting to devastating, potent effect. Guerra takes the audience on a trip through the jungle and treats it like a body, a beauty unto itself and able to be corrupted by various forces seen and unseen.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian
One of the film’s many exciting features is how it slowly cuts between parallel expeditions. Theodor, accompanied by a westernised local, arrives in a canoe, sick with fever. Begrudgingly, the loincloth-wearing Karamakate nurses him back to health by regularly blasting massive doses of white powder (“the sun’s semen”) up his nose. It is 1909 and Theodor is searching for something called the yakruna flower, the only thing that can cure him. Many years later (the exact date’s revelation is something of an unexpected plot turn), an American botanist, Evans (Brionne Davis), paddles up to a much older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) hoping to finish Theodor’s work. Evans has a book of Theodor’s final trek, which his aide sent back to Europe, as he did not survive the jungle. The book includes an image of Karamakate, which he refers to as his chullachaqui, a native term for hollow spirit. The older Karamakate is a broken man who has forgotten the customs of his own people (“Now they are just pictures on rocks,” he laments, looking at petroglyphs) but he agrees to help Evans look for yakruna. When Evans describes himself as someone who has devoted himself to plants, Karamakate counters that this is the first reasonable thing he’s ever heard a white man say. Read more.
Justin Chang, Variety
Smoothly and absorbingly edited by Etienne Boussac and Cristina Gallego, the film would nonetheless benefit from occasional tightening, its digressions and longueurs occasionally moving beyond the lyrical and into the belabored. Nevertheless, as a vision of the past, “Embrace of the Serpent” offers a stately, striking panorama and an entirely persuasive one, its wild Herzogian majesty bespeaking an intense level of commitment across the board, from the roundly fine performances (encompassing no fewer than nine languages) to the vividly detailed contributions of production designer Cesar Rodriguez to the intensely atmospheric sound design by Carlos Garcia. Guerra, whose earlier “Wind Journeys” revealed a similarly keen sense of place, clearly recognizes that we are more likely to grasp his point if we feel not just persuaded, but transported. His poignant closing dedication is to those “peoples whose song we will never know,” but to watch his film is, on a meaningful level, to know it better. Read more.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club
Shrewd at tweaking the clichés of colonial fantasy, “Embrace Of The Serpent” is ultimately an academic exercise, full of stand-ins and signifiers — a kind of “Velvet Goldmine” for the destructive impact of the South American rubber trade, minus the sense of decadent fun. There is an undeniable appeal to a movie that’s made to be picked apart and analyzed as much as this one is, where the props seem to be cross-referencing each other (Theo’s old-fashioned view camera and Evan’s twin-lens Rolleiflex), every incident and character has a mirror image, and even the protagonist is played by two people. One just wishes it weren’t doing all the work for the viewer. Read more.
David Edelstein, New York Magazine (Vulture)
As odysseys go, “Embrace of the Serpent” is wobbly. It feels like a shaggy-dog story, and it is. But its detours in both time frames — those narrative tributaries — turn out to be the real story. In between navigating the rapids, the explorers come to places that are neither ancient nor modern, native nor colonialist. They’re crazed hybrids, like things smushed together on a molecular level in Seth Brundle’s telepod in “The Fly.” In a remote mission, a Capuchin monk whips boys half to death to purge them of their “cannibalism and ignorance.” Hideously mutilated natives scamper among rubber trees, hoping the sap will forestall future assaults. In the modern time frame, Karamakate and Schultes stumble into a compound ruled by a self-appointed Christ: It looks like a combination of “Apocalypse Now” and a road-company production of “Godspell” — but it’s not so funny to see children on makeshift crucifixes punctured by arrows. What’s left of Karamakate’s people evokes the tragedy of all indigenous peoples stripped of their culture and supplied with intoxicants to dull the pain. Read more.