What begins like a black-and-white riff on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness gradually turns into something much more mythic and mystical in Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s stunning Embrace of the Serpent. The film, which is one of five nominees for this month’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, revolves around two epic journeys by a pair of European scientists into the harsh Amazon jungle, set decades apart. In each case, the white outsiders come to represent a soft sort of economic and cultural colonialism as they battle the cruel, indifferent beauty of nature while searching for a healing flower known as “yakuna,” which is cultivated by the indigenous people.
Jan Bivoet (who some may remember as the scheming hermit from 2013’s wonderfully bizarro Dutch import Borgman) plays Theo von Martius, an ethnologist who, in 1909, is dying from a tropical illness and needs the help of Karamakate, the local shaman played by Nilbio Torres. Many years later, the second adventurer, Evans (Brionne Davis), sets out to find the very same coveted miracle plant described in von Martius’ journals, seeking out the now elderly Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar Salvador), whose memories of his fateful brush with von Martius — and much else — are slipping away. The film is ostensibly about the clash of civilizations (modernity vs. the ancient world), but it develops into a slow-burning meditation on the sacred and the profane as the men venture deeper and deeper into the lush wildnerness. Shot in gorgeous black and white, the film has the hypnotic look of Sebastiao Salgado’s South American photographs crossed with Werner Herzog’s jungle visionquests, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, Wrath of God.
Embrace of the Serpent cuts back and forth between these two cross-cultural encounters with heavy doses of trippy symbolism (which some might find a bit overdone) and loco detours into the strange pockets of Kurtz-like humanity dwelling in the jungle, such as an overgrown Jesuit mission run by a mad, self-proclaimed messiah. The final third of the film casts a fever-dream spell that feels completely original. And while its strange rhythms may not be for everyone, it does provide something unusual in today’s movies: a truly original experience for the mind and the soul. A-