It’s a story as old as Alexander von Humboldt: white explorer treks into the Amazon, becomes lost and disoriented, paints face with mud, eats beetles, and has visions of galaxies and exotic reptiles, before finally achieving enlightenment—or total madness. Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo are the archetypes of the genre, which also includes Luis Buñuel’s Death in the Garden, John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest, and Roland Joffé’s The Mission. There was a boomlet of jungle quest films during the Eighties and early Nineties, not all of them set in the Amazon, reflecting a dissatisfaction with what Jimmy Carter called the “moral and…spiritual crisis” of modern society. The heroes of these films come to the jungle with predatory or utopian intentions, only to discover the folly of their ways. The plot tends to resolve with the explosion of a forest-clearing project: a river dam in The Emerald Forest, a logging road in Medicine Man, a missionary camp in The Mosquito Coast. “In the end, Robinson Crusoe went back home!” says the hero of Paul Theroux’s novel, on which the latter was based. “But we’re staying.”
Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, a finalist for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars, features the familiar fever-addled explorers, close-ups of vigilant jaguars and snakes baring their fangs, long pans of the jungle canopy, and indigenous tribesmen imparting portentous wisdom (“The jungle is fragile; if you attack her, she’ll fight back”). But the film is strange enough to resist the worst of the old clichés, which is to say it resists moral certainty. Guerra, a young Colombian director, shoots in a muted black and white (apart from a stunning montage in Technicolor during a climactic hallucinatory sequence), employs a counterintuitive narrative structure, and, most significant, empathizes not with the two white explorers whose misadventures drive the plot but with their indigenous guide, a profoundly conflicted figure who bears no resemblance to the customary noble or murderous savages.
The plot is based loosely on the stories of two scholars who traveled to the Amazon decades apart. The German anthropologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872-1924) made several expeditions in the early twentieth century, and shot documentary footage that appears to have inspired Guerra’s sets and costume design. The Harvard biologist Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001) lived in the South American rainforests in the 1940s and 1950s, becoming an expert on hallucinogenic plants and natural rubber. Guerra unites the two men through Karamakate, a shaman who is the last surviving member of a tribe destroyed by rapacious Colombian rubber plantation barons. In the Koch-Grünberg scenes, set in 1909, a skeptical young Karamakate (played by Nilbio Torres, a hunter who lives on the Vaupés River) agrees to help the feverishly ill anthropologist find the fictional Yakruna flower, the only known cure for his disease. (Koch-Grünberg did, in fact, die on one of his expeditions, but of malaria, in 1924.) In the Schultes scenes, set three decades later, the biologist begs the now hermetic, senile Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar, one of the last fifty remaining members of the Ocaína tribe) to help him find the elusive Yakruna for an equally selfish, but more cynical, reason. Guerra alternates between the two stories reluctantly, allowing each to expand and respire. The film’s pace is never slow but patient, lingering, accretionary, dilating with the logic of a nightmare.
We see the two white explorers from Karamakate’s perspective. Both are gaunt, physically frail, obsessive, covetous of their few personal possessions and keepsakes. They are multilingual, immersed in the cultures of the local tribes, but remain aloof. They carry mementos of their old lives like talismans to ward against the jungle’s transformative powers. Karamakate does not trust either of them, with good reason. Among the lost-in-the-jungle films, Guerra’s is distinguished by his decision to begin the story after the initial encounter between civilized and primitive man. When Embrace of the Serpent begins, the rubber industry has already eradicated Karamakate’s tribe and brutalized the landscape. He has seen other tribes become weak, alcoholic, and debased in servitude. He agrees to help the two scientists not out of naiveté but in order to prevent further cataclysm. “If we can’t get the whites to learn, it will be the end of us,” says another native. “The end of everything.” Karamakate suspects it is already too late but he hopes he’s wrong. He is, in this way, a strikingly contemporary figure.
His belligerence and bravado mask a violent ambivalence. “Why do you whites love your things so much?” he asks as Theo (Jan Bijvoet), the Koch-Grünberg character, hauls his bulging suitcases over a steep portage. When Evan (Brionne Davis) consults his map, the older Karamakate ridicules him: “Listen to all of reality,” he says, “not just your map.” But a different aspect of Karamakate is revealed in one of the film’s most surprising episodes. After a convivial night spent with a friendly tribe on the bank of the river, Theo discovers that his compass is missing. He becomes furious at the chieftain, demanding its return. It is not simply a question of theft, he explains to Karamakate. If the tribe acquires Western navigational skills, it will lose the folk wisdom that has served it for generations. Karamakate responds with fury. “You can’t deny them knowledge,” shouts Karamakate, shocking Theo and, perhaps, himself.
As an old man, Karamakate has lost his own compass. When Evan first encounters him, Karamakate cannot understand the ideograms he himself has written on a rock wall. “The line is broken,” he says. “Now, I’m empty.” The expedition on which he embarks with Evan, retracing the expedition of decades earlier, helps him to recall his identity. But as his memory returns, he comes to conclude that it is better left erased. Guerra dedicates the film to all the lost Amazonian cultures “we’ll never know,” though he suggests that some horrors are best forgotten.
The film is punctuated by brief reprieves from a steadily encroaching madness. When we meet Theo, he is addled by fever, supine in the bow of a canoe. Although only the Yakruna flower can cure him, Karamakate offers in the meantime a restorative: a white powder that the shaman blows forcefully through a horn up Theo’s nostrils. It is a startlingly intimate act, performed each morning, a ritual that binds the two strangers. The powder’s effects are temporary, however. When the illness returns, the shaman explains, it will be even more deadly—and it is.
Embrace of the Serpent works in the same way. It is a glorious excursion, full of beauty and wonder, but it leaves its viewers more unsettled than before. In the most haunting scene Theo and the young Karamakate come upon an abandoned rubber plantation. While the buildings crumble and burn, the few surviving natives sit in a dark shack getting drunk. The liquor, it turns out, is distilled from the Yakruna, the rare, priceless flower now squandered for a fleeting drunk. “You bring hell and death to earth!” says Karamakate, horrified. The men shrug. They offer him a drink. “We’re toasting,” they say, “to the end of the world.” Aren’t we all?
Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent is now playing in select theaters.