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Don’t let Embrace of the Serpent’s title and story about searching for a hallucinogenic plant lead you to think that it’s best viewed while riding the snake. There are, admittedly, a few minutes toward the end that turn a bit Yellow Submarine; these swirly moments are in color, whereas the rest of the film is in black and white. And although there’s a lot of talk of mysticism—practically the whole script, actually—trippiness is kept to a minimum.
Unless you count audience confusion. Embrace of the Serpent is Colombia’s failed bid to nab a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (and also the country’s first nomination), and though its vision is ambitious, its execution may leave some viewers in its shamanic dust.
Director and co-writer Circo Guerra based the story on the journals of a German ethnologist (Theodor Koch-Grunberg, played by Borgman’s Jan Bijvoet) and an American ethnobotanist (Richard Evans Schultes, played by Brionne Davis), who both seek the help of a native Amazonian healer to find a fictional flower with therapeutic properties (and if it’s fun, all the better). But they take their respective journeys with Karamakate (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar) 40 years apart.
Karamakate thinks he is the last of his people when a sick Theo comes washing up on his shore with an indigenous guide (Yaunekü Migue). Theo, however, assures him that this is not the case and promises to lead Karamakate to his family if he’ll save his life. When Evan arrives decades later, he has a copy of Theo’s journal and is seeking the plant (which is made into tea) because it’s purported to help its imbibers dream, which Evan has never done. But Evan is a bit of a dick, offering Karamakate “a lot of money” if he’ll guide him—then the asshole shows him two bucks.
This all may sound relatively straightforward, but by the time things are wrapped up, there are messages about colonization (heavy), the Catholic Church (weird), and humans’ attachment to things, which prevents forward movement in life (irritating). Karamakate repeatedly claims that “the white” is not to be trusted, a belief that’s reinforced when Theo produces a gun. (“All your knowledge only leads to violence, death.”)
Nevertheless, Theo and Evan manage to persuade a wary Karamakate to help them, and both also spit out a couple of Bible verses to get onto the grounds of the “Messiah,” a church they discover while paddling down the lake. Here, native boys (later men) protect their leader, who whip them and treat them like slaves. But the best scene is during Evan’s leg, when the party gets going and the Messiah encourages everyone to “Eat the body of our Lord!” Whether the Messiah survives his own command is unknown.
Embrace of the Serpent is ultimately too mysterious to win many fans. The ways of Karamakate and other natives are indeterminate; the dialogue may alternatively deepen/rankle the explorer’s relationship with Karamakate, which shows the tension between the races but little besides that gist.
Even the black-and-white footage of its characters, including, in no small part, nature itself, seems slightly blurred—it’s no Ida. The film might be considered the first true example of how it was an honor just to be nominated.
Embrace of the Serpent opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.