AFI FEST Review: ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is a Film of Striking Beauty and Unspeakable Horrors

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The ravages of colonialism is still felt all over the world today. A centuries-old lingering distrust between cultures that refuses to subside as the horrors of the past shape the present. With Embrace of the Serpent, director Ciro Guerra adapts the diaries of two real life travelers, Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes, into the heart of South America. Embrace of the Serpent is a striking portrait of the ravages of colonialism, and is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s films set in South America and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. This is a film of stunning visual beauty and philosophic in its examination of the horrors of man and the exploitation of native people and their land.

Embrace of the Serpent has parallel stories that take place decades apart. The first story is of an ailing Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijovet). He and his guide Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) seek the help of Karamakate (Nilbo Torres) in seeking a certain flower that will heal the slowly dying explorer. Karamakate has great distrust of Koch-Grunberg and his guide donned in Western clothing. The other story, set years later, has American explorer Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) searching for that same plant, and some remnants of Koch-Grunberg’s travels years prior. Unbeknownst to Schutles, he seeks the help of the same guide that Koch-Grunberg employed years prior with Karamakate (played in older age by Antonio Bolivar). Even in older age, Karamakate hasn’t lost any of his distrust, and suspiciously eyes the American explorer while helping him. Across both stories, as they travel through the vast jungles of Columbia, the men encounter a land torn apart from the ways of the Western world and the West’s demand for the country’s rubber.

Along the rivers that take the travelers to their destination, they encounter weird theology in the form of a false prophet and a brutal European Christian missionary. These scenes are equally unsettling, as in one sequence a self-proclaimed messiah makes an impassioned call for cannibalism or when the brutal priest tries to whip the satanic ways from the bodies of the native children. At each and every turn, the characters of Embrace of the Serpent encounter the dark side of man, right down to the brutal working conditions for those unfortunate enough to have the task of harvesting rubber as a slave. These are among a number of moments of stunning brutality that make Embrace of the Serpent such an engrossing motion picture.

The film is absolutely gorgeous with its black and white cinematography by David Gallego, a bold decision considering the natural, lush colorful setting of the story. Never before have the horrors of humanity looked so good. Embrace of the Serpent takes a turn toward the hallucinatory towards its conclusion in another marvelous visual moment, like the conclusion of 2001 set in the South American jungle.

The character dynamics within the film are itself a marvel. Ciro Guerra and co-writer Jacques Toulemonde Vidal don’t make the film’s characters a black and white exercise in good and evil. Karamakate is a layered character, not just the wise and all-knowing native. He’s certainly not the Noble Savage. At once the character is sympathetic and somewhat standoffish and unlikable, but by the end of the film you understand his intentions perfectly, even though it might be considered callous and cruel in and of itself. The same could be said of the Western characters of Embrace of the Serpent. Jan Bijovet gives a subtly nuanced performance as the ailing explorer, but a man who is genuinely interested in documenting the varied life in the South American jungles. Conversely, Brionne Davis’ character is initially much more sympathetic at the start than he is at the conclusion, but all of this is a character driven journey. There are no great leaps in logic or bewildering character decisions.

Embrace of the Serpent is easy on the eyes but challenges the mind as well. It’s an artful examination of the explorers that helped shape the world as we know it today. It’s not a film that lectures about the horrors of colonialism, but it never hides its dark truth with an obtuse narrative. Embrace of the Serpent is a film that engages the audience on multiple levels and is one of the most striking films of the year.

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