Wholly original and brand new, director Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” immediately feels like some kind of lost classic, a movie that’s been around for a long time but only talked about in film circles, finally unearthed.
And that’s not just because Guerra shot the movie in glorious black-and-white. It’s more that it is that different, that immersive, that good. It takes a familiar device for literature and film — a trip along an Amazonian river, with all its mysteries, dangers and beauty — and hangs incredible stories on that framework.
It also serves as a furious indictment of rampant colonialism and its cost.
The movie, inspired in part by the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes, actually consists of two trips along the river, both attended by a shaman named Karamakate (played as a young man by Nilbio Torres, later by Antonio Bolivar).
In a lesser film he might be a friendly sidekick. Here he is central to the story, and not really friendly at all, at least not at first. And he has good reason not to be: White rubber barons from Colombia have all but wiped out his tribe (he believes he’s the last member, but isn’t). So he doesn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for a deathly ill Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), and his guide Manduca (Yauenku Miguee) when they paddle up in a boat in the early 1900s.
Koch-Grunberg is looking for a healing plant and wants Karamakate’s help in finding it. But the selling point is his claim that other members of his tribe still exist. Their journey begins.
Guerra cuts back and forth between this trip and one more than 30 years later, when the American Schultes (Brionne Davis) shows up. He, too, wants Karamakate’s help in finding a plant, because he has lost the ability to dream, and thinks a rare hallucinogen — the yakruna, the same plant Koch-Grunberg sought — will help him. (Among the many belongings Schultes lugs along the trip are Koch-Grunberg’s books about his journey.)
But this time Karamakate does not lead the trip. He’s lost his memories, he complains, almost with shame. The jungle no longer speaks to him. Schultes will have to lead the way.
The jumps back and forth in time are fascinating. Both white men arrive with some knowledge of the jungle and not a small amount of arrogance. But they also need help. Karamakate can provide it, both in his vital youth and in his old age, though obviously in different ways. He is a fascinating character, and both Torres and Bolivar are terrific in their depictions.
The shots of the river and jungle are gorgeous, yet also tinged with potential danger. We also see the damage the hunger for rubber has wrought. A Spanish mission in particular is the seat of horrors. On the first trip a priest uses barbaric methods to keep the children he is “converting” (more like kidnapping) in line. Decades later an insane white man has convinced himself and a group of followers that he is the Son of God; he demands that Karamakate cure his ailing wife or he and Schultes will be “invited to suicide.” A nod to “Heart of Darkness,” maybe, and there are others, but plenty astounding in its own right.
“Embrace of the Serpent” is like one of those songs that pops up on the radio every now and then, new but instantly familiar. You’ve never heard it, but you seem to know it. Its images are classic, its story immediate and urgent. That’s a pretty vital combination.
Oscilloscope Pictures presents a film directed by Ciro Guerra and written by Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde. In Spanish and Amazonian tribal languages, with English subtitles. Running time: 125 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.