There is a lot to unpack after the first viewing of "Embrace of the Serpent." It is at first glance a Columbian adventure/thriller/drama that unfolds like Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola and Terrence Malick teamed up to make the ultimate travelogue. As the film sits longer, however, the character work and thematic depth take the movie to an entirely new level of excellence.
"Embrace of the Serpent" tells the story of Karamakate in two separate time periods; the first in 1909, then in 1940. In each era, Karamakate helps two white men search for something they think they need. In 1909, he takes a deathly ill German scientist down river to search for a flower that could cure what ails him. In 1940, he takes another scientist to search for the same flower, although for completely different reasons. These two journeys structurally intertwine with one another, making the film a haunting and sometimes hallucinatory journey into the mind of someone who has experienced incredible depths of loss and isolation.
Karamakate's story is rough. When he was a child, white colonists came to his village and killed everyone while raping the land for financial gain, leaving him trapped in a very solitary existence. He has nothing but disdain for the white man, but when the German scientist has spotted remnants of the young man's tribe, Karamakate agrees to lead him to the flower.
As this adventure unfolds, we jump to Karamakate as an old man. He has forgotten where the mystical flower is to be found and forgotten how to hear the trees and river. He believes he is a doppelganger of his old self, a hollow figure that is similar to the man he was, but empty of all memory of tradition and sacred truth. Seeing how the young and powerful man becomes his older shell is a heartbreaking yet hopeful journey filled with some of the most indelible images of the year.
Shot in luscious black and white, the dense and stunning jungle imagery only exists to shade in Karamakate's journeys both spiritual and physical. In the 1940 section, we see earlier choices bearing fruit and stories unwinding through time as he travels along the same path he did almost three decades earlier. For example, in 1909 they visited a mission being run by a Spanish priest who makes the children speak Spanish, whipping them for holding onto their heritage. When he returns in 1940, a madman calling himself the reborn Christ has taken control, which leads to one of the most disturbing scenes of the year.
The film is packed with philosophy, horror, psychedelic drug trips and incredible scenery, but the character of Karamakate is the film's most beautiful creation. Nilbio Torres plays the young Karamakate with a forceful poise that makes the character feel like it just jumped from a history book, while Antonio Bolivar imbues the elder with a powerful broken grace. The older and younger versions of the character are so different that it makes the film somewhat of a mystery, as it is hard to imagine how these two disparate visages of the same man come to be.
"Embrace of the Serpent" is a brilliant film, one whose layers carry as much mystery as life itself does. If there are many better movies released in 2016, then this will be a magnificent year at the cinema. The film will carry the attention of any viewer: those just looking for incredible rainforest photography will be swept along just as readily as those searching for depth of theme and character. All one must do is take the journey.
"Embrace of the Serpent"
Dir. Ciro Guerra
Now playing at Tin Pan Theater