Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent constricts itself with the sinister snake of history – venomous, elusive, alluring, and difficult to unravel – about as tightly as a film can. It’s not perfect; Guerra once or twice drowns in a swamp of historical allusions and metaphors that are never really allowed the free space to lash out as dangerously and free-associatively as they could. But his film at least allows history to vibrate rather than remain trapped in a film’s distanced reverence like a waxworks display. A provocative, even downright brash film, Embrace of the Serpent is wisely emboldened by its stylistic and political radicalism. Even when it sinks into symbols like quicksand, it is at worst “a nice try” or a near-miss rather than an outright failure, and, frankly, its missteps are only as hurtful as they are because of the potential lurking in the film’s head. This is not timid cinema, and it burrows un-hesitantly into the post-colonial mindset with more aesthetic vigor than most other morally-charged films would know what to do with. For all its flaws, there’s something essential about it, and not only because its political fangs are so often unsheathed. Like the mythical psychedelic flower that is a kind of MacGuffin for director Guerra’s robust scrutiny of cinematic depictions of the “Other”, Embrace boasts enough of a visual pull to send sparks every which way, even if the prospect of truly igniting is ultimately left off the table.
Interweaving two obviously interlaced tales separated by 30 years of time and a lifetime of hesitance from protagonist Karamakate (Nilbio Torres plays a younger, easily agitated version, Antonio Bolivar an older, more cautious take on the man), Embrace imagines two Amazonian treks through danger and dementia. The object of both is to find a psychedelic flower that apparently boasts curative potential, but the nominal reason for the expedition differs. The first of the two (chronologically in this world’s timespan, although the two stories are told simultaneously in the film) begins in 1909 when bedraggled and nearly insane Western explorer Theo (Jan Bijovet) finds a young Karamakate, presuming himself the last of his tribe, and asks him to guide him to the fabled fruit in hopes of restoring his own mind. An elderly version of Karamakate drags himself on a similar journey with the more nominally sane Evan (Brionne Davis) years later, this version of Karamakate now more overtly resigned to the awareness that he is likely the last of his kind.
Although the two white men seek the exotic flower for different purposes, the similarities in their quests suggest the Western World not mutating into a more considerate self but instead discovering new reasons or excuses to reformulate the same girders of oppression. While Evan, an American in 1940, appeals to Karamakate’s last sliver of hope by describing himself as a botanist – a man dedicating to studying what his white comrades spend centuries destroying – his real mission is to secure a new breed of rubber-producing trees in a forest that has already been disfigured by rubber consumption for the US war effort. Luckily for us, this forest of the damned is aesthetically shaken, not stirred, and it emits its own nocturnal uncertainties that boast striking implications for not only the characters but for the entire warp and woof of Western cinema cultivating liberal guilt out of perspectives that always put white men front and center. With a square frame around them, white characters are seldom strangers in strange lands. Even when the narrative asks them to falter, the tricky, paler figures of cinema always find a way to control the film space, to make the film their home. Even if the world is pummeling them into submission, that world still defines itself in relation to the white characters; the drama emanates from them.
Comparatively, Embrace aligns not with either Europeans’ confusion but Karamakate’s earned paranoia and his deep well of skepticism keeping itself at bay just long enough for him to drink one last swig of unfulfilled hope that a white man will respect him for once. The film sometimes fancies him an icon figure in this highly figurative emotional realm. But, to the end, Karamakate keeps a rambunctious but laconic comic anti-energy so close to his vest that he remains a human being with personal free-floating sensations and angers that lie outside the realm of symbolic status. Even when the film tries to weigh him down with the weight of history, he eludes these symbolic demands and emerges as a genuine character.
The Yakruna plant itself is not always so lucky. Amiably massaging out the central tensions in Western views of non-White culture, namely the paradox of simultaneous fascination with and rejection of anything that lies beyond the pale of science, the plant itself is an embodiment of centuries of exotic myths. In the white males’ magnetic pull toward the flower, the film locates the central paradox of white rationalism: the very logic that necessarily denounces mysticism and thus exoticizes non-white cultures also devours many white men, tired of their own world and aspiring toward something beyond the limits of their existence. These Europeans and the films that fetishize them fulfill a vision of Other that is both an object to abuse and a goal to strive to when it might help you. That the two white men can choose to believe in the Yakruna plant only when it suits them, picking apart other cultures and applying only what is of utility to preserving whiteness at large, is never far from the film’s nuanced understanding of how cultural privilege to abuse other ethnicities applies in not only physical but ideological ways.
The flower is also, obviously, too obviously, a metaphor for a way of life that white people can never truly understand, the logical endpoint of a film laying its tracks too linearly on its own path toward rounding out its argument. Not sure enough of how Karamakate’s culture imaginatively withers away so that the white men may bloom in full? Don’t worry: here’s a photograph of a younger Karamakate handy he’s conveniently forgotten, a marker of how white people capture, contain, frame, and control visions of his past that have been taken away from him. Not quite clear on how a dual layover in a Catholic mission – the first in 1909 depicting an abusive Spaniard and the latter revealing a now demented Amazonian taught to hate himself and control others like him as the Westerner once did – is emblematic of coerced racial self-hate? Well, images of Amazonians being whipped by their overlords in 1909 and then flagellating themselves in 1940 are ready and willing to button up every loose thread until you’re good and sure where the film’s heart lies.
Although the Western rationalist drive to control mystery and codify meaning into science destroys Karamakate’s culture, the film too is a totem to that which it criticizes. Unwilling to accept the idea that any moment in the film might just speak for itself, any sensation, perception, or insinuation the film intimates must be explained. That an image might not tie into a wider five paragraph structure becomes heresy. For all its wonderfully disturbed energy, the film is too content to stitch itself together around double-meanings and boldface symmetries that curb the wonderful strangeness cultivated beneath the waters of packaged meaning.
The film’s heart, thankfully, is Karamakate, a man whose withdrawal into himself by the time the mid-century creeps around is emblematic of white society’s unblinking destruction of his people. Torres douses the younger variation on the man in a spirited sense of physicality that suggests a rebel in the making, hurling verbal molotovs at his white companion whenever he can. The older man is played by Bolivar with a weary, water-logged introspective caliber that evokes a man permanently disfigured by the passage of time and oppression, no longer boasting the sheer brio of outward expression his younger self did. He is the destabilizing, ricocheting impulse that the film is almost not ready to handle, particularly when juxtaposed against the two white men who act in a more literate, classical style that is phenomenally opposed to either of the versions of Karamakate.
Thus, the mortal tensions in the races are filtered through and embodied within the style systems of the men at the heart of the tale in a boldly provocative gesture that would discombobulate a lesser film and only emboldens this one with the madness necessary to keep it throbbing along energetically. The interpersonal drama, not quite acerbic buddy film but somewhere in the neighborhood, stabs lesions into the symbols that elsewhere try to blanket over the film in a layer of over-modulated meaning. The metaphors are so busy defanging the film, even anesthetizing it, that Karamakate’s body language feels like an act of violation and reclamation, a brash attempt to take charge of a film that is somewhat over-eager to assert itself onto him much as Western culture has. While the film is over-encumbered, Karmakate himself resists becoming a totem to anything. He wears his scars and his pride like battle-wounds against a film that might display him as a museum figure to non-Western culture, paradoxically elevating non-Western society only by embalming it and holding it in place as a metaphor for a wider abstract notion.
Admittedly, the somewhat clinical tone hovering over the film is part of the pull: to demystify, to detoxify the stereotypes of colonial fantasy. The question is whether Embrace re-toxifies with its own provocative streak after defanging the colonial impulse. The point is to shed light on the “Darkest …” myth, but one longs for a counter-narrative with a little of its own darkness, a spirit found in the film’s off-kilter willingness to turn into a barbed road trip between cultures and races, fascinatingly demolishing the languid and lyrical tone with a splintered stand-up quasi-comedy routine (more like anti-comedy routine) on the fragility of first world cultural constructs. When it is not accidentally spending all of its energy as a medicinal curative for colonial congestion and it is instead busy cross-pollinating its genre influences, the film embraces the squiggly, slippery, slimy spirit of its own serpent that refuses to be captured or pigeonholed in any one particular mood. David Gallego’s resplendent cinematography, austere but hiding nasty recesses beneath the lustrous surface, is also more spidery and malleable than initially expected. The many-shades-of-grey textures are able to switch from nightmares speckled with the hearts (and the guts) of darkness to heavenly, metaphysical beauty at the drop of a dime. Think of it as Apocalypse Now with the expressionistic touches retained but twisted toward Bergman.
Ultimately, Embrace of the Serpent still cannot compete with its forebears; lacking either Jim Jarmusch’s deranged carnival madhouse atmosphere or Herzog’s tremors of ecstasy, Embrace is not a polemic but a meditation, too often set to stun, sometimes veering dangerously toward the lecture house. It is too medicinalized for its own good, bleeding meaning like the trees being exsanguinated for rubber and empire. But the film’s snappish, absurdist brio, if always mediated by deflating explanations, saves the day almost in spite of the film’s inability to fully commit to a troubled, tonally askew atmosphere. The film is a cluster of contradiction and a constellation of conundrums, if you excuse the grotesque alliteration on my part. But, high-minded and naughty in equal measure and with enough tones to shake a 100-foot tree at, there’s sure nothing else like it.