A poetic corrective to images of indigenous peoples (including those furnished by Werner Herzog), Embrace of the Serpent turns the traditional “adventure in the Amazon” yarn on its head. Director Ciro Guerra’s two most radical choices are shooting in black and white and making Karamakate, a Cohiuano tribesman living alone in the jungle, the protagonist.
Embracing his non-Western concepts of time and storytelling, the film takes place at two points in Karamakate’s life: circa 1907, when he encounters explorer Theodor von Martius (the always-raggedy Jan Bijvoet) and his native guide Manduca; and some 40 years later, when he repeats parts of the earlier journey with Boston-born botanist Evans. The young Karamakate (played by Nilbio Torres and his powerful thighs) accompanies von Martius in search of both his tribe and the yakruna, a flowering plant that is sacred to them; the old Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) only takes Evans to the yakruna.
Along the way, the twin parties witness the ravages of colonialism, specifically the genocide and enslavement of natives perpetuated by Colombian rubber barons. (The most sinister of these encounters comes with a visit to a Catholic orphanage that Manduca accidentally “liberates”; when old Karamakate returns with Evan, things have taken a Jodorowskian turn.) Although the finale definitely walks a fine line between psychedelic theory of everything and ham-handed New Age trip, it’s an all-around visual feast that’s well worth the trek.