Ciro Guerra’s Amazonian fable, the story of three men in two boats, has a stately splendour. It unwinds like the river which is its home. What lies at the end of the river? As ever, death, but also, the film suggests, with a psychotropic élan, the whole of eternity and the universe which eternity contains. No small matter, in other words.
The central character, Karamakate, appears twice, first as a young man and then an older one. On both occasions he escorts a white visitor down the river, leading them to the discovery of a fabled plant which is revealed to be a portal, perhaps from the gods, to a transcendental vista of the universe. Twice, Karamakate then burns the tree which produces this plant. Is this a theory of eternal recurrence? Will there be another visitor in another moment who Karamakate will again lead to a discovery which can never be shared by anyone else? Perhaps this is a metaphor for the ongoing destruction of the natural world by the forces of imperialism, something which continues to repeat itself with a relentless inevitability.
The film’s more mystical elements are tempered by its redoubtable account of the realities of the Amazon. It shows the terrible cruelties of the rubber trade as well as the dubious influence of Catholic missionaries whose legacy, thirty years later, is nothing more than a crazed cult. (With hints of Jonestown.) Karamakate himself comes from a tribe whose last remaining members have descended into a pitiable decadence, foregoing their jungle roots, using the sacred plant as nothing more than a drug to get high on, stuck between the warring white men of Peru and Colombia, powerless to fight back. In its account of all this, Embrace of the Serpent does what much great art does: it takes its audience into an unknown world and reveals things which the audience would never have known had they not shared the film’s vision. With the consequence that art might be seen as being another kind of sacred plant. (There is a hint of Andrei Rublev in the film’s use of colour at the conclusion to describe a transcendent world which underpins the ‘actual’ one.)
The film has presumably had its break-out success because it’s a rollicking tale of adventure and mystery. It’s highly effective on this level. But. it’s also one of the few films which has managed to successfully integrate an indigenous narrative. (Atanarjuat & Birdwatchers are two more that come to mind.) This is the post-Tarzan world, which seeks to turn the technological equilibrium inside out. It’s Karamakate who possesses knowledge which the Westerners can only dream about, which the director’s camera can never quite capture. Guerra handles his complex narrative with boldness, a hint of terror and a resolute humanity.