Film: Moral simplicity

Compelling images not enough to save ‘Embrace of the Serpent’

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1957
‘Embrace of the Serpent,’ now playing at the Rafael, is a historical drama in which an Amazonian shaman takes two scientists on quests (years apart) for the same sacred healing plant.  Photo courtesy of ‘Embrace of the Serpent.’

By Richard von Busack

The Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent is the biggest European guilt-whip since Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. The Colombian film contrasts two incidents in the life of the Amazonian shaman Karamakate, the last of his nation. He encounters two explorers, some 40 years apart, in the first half of the 20th century.  Karamakate (played in youth by Nilbio Torres) is a noble, scornful warrior. Braced against his 7-foot blowgun, he wears his thong like Superman’s trunks.

In 1909, the feverish explorer Theo (Jan Bijvoet), on assignment from the museum in Stuttgart, has traveled deep into Karamakate’s forest. He arrives in a dugout canoe by his friend and guide Manduca (Yauenku Migue), a refugee from the rubber plantations. The two seek a semi-legendary drug, derived from a rare flower called “Yakruna.”

The riverlands are blighted with massacres. There are border wars between the Colombians and the Peruvians. Rubber planters commit atrocities that rival Heart of Darkness.

Forty years later, a North American explorer named Evan (Brionne Davis) encounters the shaman (now played by Tafillama, aka Antonio Bolivar Salvador). The outsider says that he’s come to study plants. “That’s the most sensible thing I ever heard a white man say,” the shaman says. But the aged Karamakate has forgotten all his lore and become, he says, a “chullachaqui,” a spiritless ghost haunting the jungle clearings. On their travels together, they see rot and decline. A mission, once ruled by a flagellating monk, has gone full Kurtz. Seeing the crypto-Christian savages there, Karamakate exclaims—in case we didn’t get it—“They are now the worst of two worlds.”

The young director, Ciro Guerra, working from the diaries of two real-life explorers, lures you in with visuals so verdant and dense, in black and white widescreen, that you can almost overlook the moral simplicity. The shaman is self-sufficient—it’s the white men who need and want and grasp. Embrace of the Serpent bypasses heading back to Carlos Castaneda right into the realm of James Fenimore Cooper’s super-Indians. The movie keeps rebuking the clumsy packrat whites who carry so much with them: “They’re just things,” Karamakate says, as if he were one of those professionals you hire to get the clutter out of your house.

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