Ciro Guerra’s Oscar nominated Embrace Of The Serpent acts like a constrictor on its audience; slithering into the consciousness as it begins weaving it’s wily dual narrative, before tightening in its second hour until the viewer feels utterly consumed by its unsuspected force. If this somewhat laboured metaphor sounds oppressive, the truth of the experience is really quite the opposite. A film which I initially found difficult to quantify and fully engage with ultimately had me transfixed. It’s not often I reach the end of a film wishing it could go on all night.
Taking two journal accounts of European trips into the depths of the Amazon as it’s inspiration, Embrace charts two journeys some 40 years apart marshalled by the same native guide named Karamakate – quite possibly the last surviving member of the Cohiuano tribe. Both expeditions find German explorers searching with fatal determination to locate a mythic flower named the yakruna, famed for its mind-expanding abilities. It is, essentially, the fountain of youth or arc of the covenant for Guerra’s purposes; a talisman that Western man yearns for so that he might come closer to harnessing the power of the Gods.
Turn-of-the-century adventurer Theo (Jan Bivjoet) is in particularly ill-health, and relies upon the younger incarnation of Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) to act as both guide and medicine man, routinely subjecting himself to having Karamakate’s potions blown with force into his nostrils. Karamakate is understandably distrusting of this sickly European, enforcing a strict detox on the suffering man, but he has his guard lowered by the presence of Manduca (Yauenkü Migue); a young tribesman who is loyal to the sickly wanderer.
In later years history repeats and an older, more detached Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) acts as lone escort for Evan (Brionne Davis); a more studious, scientific mind who claims never to dream and hopes the yakruna will change his fortunes in this regard. Guerra’s film bobs from one timeline to the other, weaving around the audience, getting us invested in one, then pivoting to the other. Such a mindful process takes time to bed in, thus the opening stretch can feel meandering, soft of focus. Yet as parallels are drawn between both stories and a more coherent narrative comes to bind the two together, Embrace strengthens until it becomes something quite formidable indeed.
There’s a lot to unpack here – fitting as luggage comes to be one of the film’s central motifs. Karamakate is continually dumbfounded by how these Western men cling to possessions as aid to memory, threatening to separate both of them from their clutter. This in itself is one of the many identifiers of two radically different cultures clashing in such an incredible, intimidating location; one which acts as both paradise and hell on Earth depending on Guerra’s needs. Colonialism and its horrendous fallout is one of the clearest preoccupations here; the root causes behind its torturous failings routinely exposed as greed and ignorance.
Yet it’s not so clear cut as to say that the white man is evil and the native Amazonians are innately majestic and, by extension, closer to God. Embrace skirts wisely away from painting in such broad brushstrokes, despite the odd heavy-handed moment. Indeed, as events unfold, it is revealed that Karamakate is just as susceptible to the shortfalls of human nature. One story might almost be seen as an act of recompense for the other. Credit to Jacques Toulemonde Vidal for penning such a sinuous experience. Like a snake, this film coils within itself; exact beginnings and ends becoming unclear or even irrelevant.
Though a couple of continents removed, it’s difficult not to feel the looming shadow of Apocalypse Now hanging over Guerra’s film – not least during the film’s craziest sequence in which Evan and Karamakate encounter a deranged man playing Messiah in the middle of nowhere – yet to its great credit Embrace Of The Serpent endures such comparisons. See also the film’s climax, which delves headfirst into the visual language of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and again holds its own. This is thanks, in part, to a piece of visual slight-of-hand that’s been set-up for nearly two hours without the viewer’s knowledge. Guerra plays with form as an intrinsic tool of storytelling, similar to the way in which Xavier Dolan toyed with aspect ratio in his recent masterpiece Mommy. Guerra uses colour – or it’s absence – to similar effect.
And so Empire Of The Serpent grows and broods in the mind of the viewer. Until it’s all-encompassing. One of those rare, mesmerising films which doesn’t charm on immediate approach, but which keeps giving as it progresses, and then still further once it’s shared it’s time with you. It helps, of course, that the entire experience is utterly breathtaking to look at. David Gallego’s monochrome presentation robs the Amazon of its lurid colours, but gives back so much more in texture and shadowplay. The cast seal the deal, especially Torres and Bolivar playing the same man at different ages. They are unified without resorting to imitating one another, as though Karamakate is a weary constant in a world forever on the brink of tearing itself apart.
In truth I’m still reeling slightly from this monolith of a film, which feels genuinely unique in the modern cinematic landscape. One senses that a second viewing is almost essential. Fortunately that’s something I’m more than happy to oblige it. Don’t be surprised if this winds up very high come my end of year list, by which time I hope to have taken my own second journey into Guerra’s serpentine heart of darkness.