'Embrace of the Serpent' is a furious denouncement of imperialism

City Paper

It might be 2016, but cinematic history’s knotty relationship with the aftermath of manifest destiny and other final solutions is as insulting as ever. At this year’s Oscars, “Mad Max: Fury Road” was given multiple awards for costume and set design that transplanted tribal aesthetics onto white people, while big winner “The Revenant” recast genocide against Native Americans as a monument to white suffering on the frontier. Enter the Foreign Language-nominated but fittingly unrewarded “Embrace of the Serpent,” a righteous tract against the myth of the civilized west and the aftermath of the colonial conquest it was built on, from an indigenous perspective instead of a white one.

Loosely based on the journals of German ethnologist Theo Koch-Grunberg and American ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes and their detailed studies of life in the Amazon, “Embrace of the Serpent” is an account of havoc wreaked not just by industrial colonization (here, in particular, the rubber industry) but by ethnographic colonization as well. Both Theo and Evan made valuable contributions to western understanding of the Amazon, but “Embrace of the Serpent” is interested in neither a hagiographic catalogue of their findings or an “Aguirre: The Wrath of God”/ “Apocalypse Now”-style upriver battle with savagery and the civilized self, showing their contributions were useless to those it catalogued. Instead filmmaker Ciro Guerra and co-writer Jacques Toulemonde Vidal ground the story in the perspective of the fictional Karamakate, a lone survivor of a wiped out tribe and a shaman used by both explorers for his knowledge of a hallucinatory healing plant called the Yakruna, upgrading his character trope from token spirit guide and noble savage to angry, moral center.

Serpent cross-cuts between 1909 and 1940, where a young and old Karamakate (played respectively by Nilbio Torres of the Cubeo people and Antonio Bolivar Salvador of the Ocaina) reluctantly fields the intrusive presence of a dying Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and then Evan (Brionne Davis) picking up Theo’s pieces. The shift in time allows the film to chart the damage caused by both rubber barons and missionaries: A Catholic colony in 1909 where a priest whips the cannibalism out of orphan natives turns, in 1940, to a self-flagellating cult where the children have grown into followers of a new false messiah who offers himself in a fairly ironic communion; a 1909 encounter with a mutilated slave looking to be put out of his misery before being punished further by overlords at the rubber plantation is paralleled in 1940 with a shift from industrial bogeymen to a direct implication of every white presence in the jungle.
Theo’s native assistant Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) has no 1940 corollary, just Karamakate alone with a surrounding absence that speaks volumes. The anthropologists, benign interlopers who nonetheless remain emissaries of empire, end up being stand-ins for curious white audiences whose enlightened sympathy is ultimately useless as beneficiaries of structural violence.

Theo is a Jared Diamond type whose paternal condescension involves worrying that a compass stolen by natives will lead to the downfall of an ancient form of navigation while he masters that navigation as a token of understanding to be footnoted in scientific civilization. Evan, almost a parody of William Hurt taking ayahuasca in “Altered States,” is every fake rugged DIY-er, introducing himself to Karamakate with pretend lived-in knowledge of his cultural touchstones. At times, one may wish it left whites out entirely.

Being a work born of exhaustion, “Embrace of the Serpment’s” clever construct only can only do so much to contain its fury, which streamlines some of the more artful aspects into a relatively straightforward “fuck you” to imperialism. Unlike, say, Terence Malick’s “The New World,” whose simultaneous deconstruction and reinforcement of standard Jamestown narratives allowed for poetics in the internal monologues of colonizers, director Guerra puts everything up-front for debate in the dialogue. As a course corrective, “Embrace of the Serpent” should have been crushed under the weight of the trajectory dropped on its shoulders, but its fleet and nimble methodology allows for a cherry bomb-style disruption that will hopefully lead to more than a mildly inclusive Leo Dicaprio acceptance speech.

“The Embrace of the Serpent” directed by Ciro Guerra is now playing at the Charles Theater.

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