Ciro Guerra's film was a finalist for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, but lost to a Holocaust movie. I don't mean to be unfair to Son of Saul, which I haven't seen yet, but it does seem like the deck is stacked when you have a film like that in the competition. Embrace of the Serpent comments on a different sort of Holocaust, the virtual destruction by European colonialism of a people and their way of life. The site is Colombia, a land raped by rubber barons and tormented by the Catholic Church. Karamakate, the "world mover," believes himself the last survivor of his people, the last custodian of their traditional knowledge, which he guards jealously. He isn't untouched by colonization, since he speaks Spanish, but he has resisted its influence to the point of isolating himself. In 1907 a still young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) encounters Theo, an ailing German explorer (Jan Bijvoet) and his guide Manduca (Yauenku Migue), an educated native who also acts as Theo's secretary. Karamakate hates whites and despises Manduca as a sort of race traitor, but agrees to assist them as guide and healer when Theo says he's seen other survivors of our hero's people. Thus begins the first of two intercut phantasmagoric quests, the other taking place several decades later, during World War II, when an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) encounters Evan (Brionne Davis), an American looking for yakruna, the mystical healing plant described in Theo's posthumously published journals. Because both sequences are shot in black and white by David Gallego, the visual effect of the aboriginal river journeys is as much Dead Man as Apocalypse Now, though some of the episodes come closer to the latter in tone. It becomes clear that the second quest gives Karamakate a chance to deal with some unfinished business in his own life. In old age, he fears he has become a chullachaqui, an empty shell or ghostly projection of himself, void of memories or real knowledge, and is inclined to believe that all whites are chullachaquis. His anxieties go back to an angry act of cultural destruction back in 1907 when, discovering at the end of his quest with Theo that his people had become decadent, he torched the last yakruna tree rather than see the sacred stuff cultivated as a commercial crop. By the 1940s he claims to have forgotten most of his old knowledge, though much of it returns, or comes out from hiding, during his quest with Evan. Karamakate learns that one of his earlier attempts at cultural preservation has gone terribly awry, and comes to the realization that, whatever he thought his mission was to his own people, his real destiny was to transmit his knowledge, including the yakruna and the hallucinogenic cappi drink, to Evan, who, unlike Theo, is able to embrace the serpent and see the world as Karamakate saw it.
In many ways Embrace plays out like an old-fashioned adventure movie full of perils and escapes. In 1907, Karamakate and his companions try to rescue native boys from the tyranny of a crazed Catholic priest whose abuse of his charges extends at least to flogging. They can't do much but beat the priest down, since the Colombian army is bearing down on the territory, but this is where our hero tries to teach the boys something of their culture. When he returns in the Forties, the old school has been taken over by a religious cult worshiping an abusive self-proclaimed Messiah who's only defeated when he invites his own people to devour him in the ultimate unholy Communion. Somehow Karamakate blames himself for this, since things did not develop according to his plans from the past. He embodies an ambivalence toward cultural exchange that's highlighted best in 1907 when his party visits a village where Theo is an old friend, but whose chief steals Theo's compass. Theo demands to have it back on "prime directive" grounds: if the natives come to rely on the compass for navigating the jungle, they'll lose their unique knowledge and methods of learning. Both Karamakate and Manduca object to this, protesting that Theo has no right to prevent natives from learning useful things. Otherwise, however, Karamakate acts as self-appointed guardian of traditional culture against pollution by whites, except when he's destroying that knowledge by burning yakruna. His lifelong confusion about his purpose encourages his suspicion that he's only a chullachaqui until Evan gives him a last chance at purpose. What is regrettably still a novelty to Embrace is its well-rounded presentation of a native personality; the complexity of Karamakate and Manduca -- who has a backstory of oppression in his own right yet resents Karamakate's hectoring -- is what sets it apart from pulp fiction or Hollywood stories set in this same part of the world.
Yet Embrace may want to have it both ways by spiritualizing Karamakate as a bearer of authentic wisdom and meaningful vision. Guerra and his co-writers seem to feel that Karamakate's religion is right if not true in its receptivity to nature in a way Christianity isn't. The film turns colorful for Evan's cappi-fueled headtrip in a manner dimly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey's headrush toward enlightenment and evolution, and invites us to think spiritually when Karamakate vanishes after Evan comes to. It implicitly approves of Evan's decision, under pressure from Karamakate, to abandon his gear in a way Theo never did, overcoming a "white" obsession with stuff that our hero has always deplored. In this sense Embrace merely exchanges an old cliche, according to which Christianity is superior to primitive paganism, with a more recent one in which the superiority of native ways is self-evident. But I wonder whether the Evan sequence as a whole is more symbolic than the Theo sequence. That is, I wonder whether the old Karamakate Evan encounters is really his own construct of native wisdom, derived from his reading of Theo's writings; whether by following in Theo's footsteps Evan evokes a Karamakate who is a chullacaqui, a ghost who haunts the American until Evan truly internalizes his booklearning through the cappi ritual, at which point he no longer needs Karamakate, so Karamakate is no longer there. This is probably my resistance to aboriginal spirituality talking, since in dramatic terms Karamakate has a character arc to work out that requires his actual presence with Evan. If I must be skeptical, I can assume that old Karamakate simply walked off while Evan was tripping. But while I might resist any proselytizing for aboriginal superiority, that doesn't change my ultimate opinion of the film, which is very positive right now. It's an ingeniously directed and brilliantly acted film that should stand comparison with the best American films of 2015. Since the Academy doesn't have that great a track record when honoring foreign films, all I can say after seeing Embrace of the Serpent is that Son of Saul better have been a masterpiece.