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The Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent sees white, western civilization as terminally exploitative. Moving deep into the Amazonian jungle, this rich and unsettling movie focuses on the life that’s being trampled and squandered as rampant colonialism gobbles up the world’s resources and murders its primal dreams.

Virtually a journey into an alien world, Embrace of the Serpent also reminds us that tribal life in the jungles had a striking abundance and that its loss does irreparable harm to the human spirit.

A shaman shows two white visitors the Embrace of the Serpent
A shaman shows two white visitors the Embrace of the Serpent

Photographing in black-and-white, director Ciro Guerra and cinematographer David Gallego take us on a trip down the Amazon: The result is a film steeped in exoticism and full of imminent dangers.

Guerra and his co-writer Jacques Toulemonde chronicle two different trips into the jungle, shifting between stories that are united by the presence of a shaman named Karamakate.

As a young man and, later, as an aging shaman, Karamakate — played by two actors — leads two different white men on searches for the Yakruna plant, a rare species known for producing psychedelic effects when ingested. Ultimately, the Yakruna becomes a vehicle for a white men to be schooled by the natural world, which Karamakate insists must be heard, not conquered.

The first journey begins in 1909. Young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) is approached by Manduca (Yauenku Miguel), a native who has had exposure to whites. Manteca wants Karamakate to save the life of a German (Jan Bijvoet) explorer who has taken ill. Only the Yakruna plant can stave off death.

This white character — Theo by name — is based on Theodor Koch-Grunberg, a real Amazon explorer who wrote extensively about his encounters with indigenous peoples along the Amazon.

In the second story, Antonio Bolivar Salvador plays an aged but still imposing Karamakate; he agrees to help an American botanist (Brionne Davis) search for the Yakruna plant. Davis’ character says he has devoted his life to plants, something Karamakate finds admirable.

But like his predecessor, Davis’ Evan doesn’t always find it easy to accept Karamakate’s sternly applied discipline.

In both stories, a representative of an invasive civilization is said to be more interested in robbing the forest of rubber than in appreciating the lives of native peoples. And both white men are burdened by excess baggage — suitcases full of equipment — that they insist on piling into Karamakate’s canoe.

By the time we meet the older Karamakate, he has begun to complain about having forgotten the ways of his people. He, too, may have lost his connection with ancient secrets.

Western religion is not spared. In one 1909 scene, Karamakate and his companion stumble upon a Christian missionary who abuses native children. In later scenes, we meet a strange group of cultists led by a man who proclaims himself the messiah and who seems to have submitted entirely to his darkest impulses.

Both of these incidents dramatize the distortions that occur when the values of the outside world penetrate the jungle and are allowed to marinate in isolation.

No description of events does justice to this odd and absorbing movie. Daringly, Embrace of the Serpent tries to cut away the obscurations that obscure the jungle’s mystery.

I suppose, then, that it’s possible to characterize Embrace of the Serpent, which seems aimed at western audiences, as an instructive and necessary act of trespass.