It's easy to become intimidated by the sheer otherworldliness of Ciro Guerra's "The Embrace of the Serpent," which was Colombia's first Best Foreign Language Film nominee at the last Oscars. It was shot mostly in black and white, deep in the Amazon jungle, and ten different languages are spoken by various characters. The action is set in 1909 and 1940, but the film feels timeless. There are very clear comparisons to be made to "Apocalypse Now," "The Mission," and "Aguirre the Wrath of God," all nightmare journeys into the jungle that highlight the horrors of Western colonialism. However, the central figure here is not the white man grappling with his morality and sanity as he plunges deeper into the natural world, but a native shaman, Karamakate, who has his own demons.
Karamakate, played in 1909 by Nilbio Torres and 1940 by Antonio Bolívar, is the last of his tribe. He lives alone in isolation in the jungle, until one day a sick German explorer, Theo Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet) arrives seeking a cure for his illness. Karamakate is reluctant, but agrees to journey with Theo an his Colombian guide Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) in search of the yakruna, a holy plant which is the only thing that can save Theo. In 1940, the now aged Karamakate is sought out by an American scientist, Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), who has come to the region to study plants. He has read of the yakruna in Theo's published diaries, and has come to investigate, hoping for a cure for a different kind of sickness. Karamakate, his memory now spotty, agree to retrace his steps with Evan on a parallel journey upriver and into the past.
The film's final intertitles reveal that Theo and Evan were based on real people, and their writings are the only record of many of the peoples they encountered in the Amazon. Karamakate is fictional, but he's far more complex and interesting than either of the Westerners. We see him at two different times in his life, first as a younger, bitter man who is openly hostile to Theo and Manduca. He is quick to blame them for all the crimes of the destructive rubber barons and their Colombian allies, who have been steadily encroaching on the natives' lands, and slaughtering everyone in their path. He forms a grudging friendship with Theo as their journey progresses, though he remains prideful and demanding throughout. With Evan, thirty years later, Karamakate has become old, haunted by years of guilt and failure. He is far less antagonistic, more thoughtful, and perhaps ready to make amends.
And it's Karamakate's point of view that is vital to the film, that recontextualizes the events to chart the tragic destruction of the native cultures and the decline of its peoples. His is a world that is steeped in lore and mystery, where nature must be respected or the consequences are grave. Spirits and unseen forces hold sway, communicating with humans through visions and dreams. This is key to understanding his motivations. At the same time, Karamakate is a stark departure from the usual portrayals of native peoples, very active in the story and very self-possessed. He is quick to point out hypocrisies and flawed assumptions, clearly on the same intellectual footing as the Westerners, even if the kinds of knowledge that they possess are very different. The two actors that portray him are both excellent, especially Nilbio Torres. He makes Karamakate deeply sympathetic, even at his most disdainful.
The black and white cinematography of the jungle landscape by David Gallegos is mesmerizing, often dreamlike. According to the filmmakers, the lack of color was meant to evoke the ethnographic images created by the original explorers. However, it also helps to blur the lines between the time periods, and between the characters as the two storylines slowly merge at the climax of the film. The filmmakers also display a strong commitment to historical and sociological accuracy, even though Karamakate's tribe is a fictional one. Their accounts of the production are fascinating in and of themselves. The logistics of filming in the jungle with native non-actors must have been daunting, but clearly the film could not have been made in any other way.
Most of all, I appreciate the film for its humanization of a lost people, and for shedding critical light on a terrible chapter of human history largely unknown to the rest of the world. It's difficult at times to figure out exactly which conflicts are being referenced if you don't know much about South America in the early 20th century, but the filmmakers are merciless in their portrayal of its effects. Karamakate and his travelling companions come across many dangers in the jungle, but the worst are those wrought by Western commerce, in the form of the rubber plantations, and Western morality, in the form of a mission that Karamakate visits in both stories.
I expect that this will be a film that will be impossible to avoid talking about in any discussion of South American cinema going forward. Colombia's really only had a film industry for about a decade, but they've already made a masterpiece I'd put on equal footing with any other film released in this decade.