Movies can educate, stimulate and provoke us; they can also take us places we have never been. That is the marvel of Embrace of the Serpent, which transports us to the Columbian Amazon to share two separate but related experiences forty years apart. Filmmaker Ciro Guerra based his script on the diaries of two white explorers who venture into unknown territory and attempt to befriend—and in some ways exploit—a shaman warrior while searching for a rare plant that is said to have great healing powers.
By shooting in widescreen black & white, Guerra and cinematographer David Gallego move their story one step away from contemporary reality, which is appropriate for a film that traffics in surreal and psychedelic imagery. The two white men who seek help from the natives along the river are quite different: a Dutch man who is desperately ill when he meets the shaman, Karamakate, in 1909, and an American in the 1940s whose motives are not nearly as pure. Like everyone else who represents Western civilization, they wreak havoc on the culture of Colombia and its many tribes. The one link between them is Karamakate and the secret he protects.
Guerra has explained, “There’s an idea in many of the texts that explores the indigenous world that speaks of a different concept of time. Time to them is not a line, as we see it in the West, but a series of multiple universes happening simultaneously. It is a concept that has been referred to as ‘time without time’ or ‘space without space.’
Embrace of the Serpent is slowly paced but it’s as elegant as it is eloquent. The film celebrates life along the Amazon and condemns those who sullied it, whether for profit or to propagate a religious ideal. Perhaps its greatest achievement is that it makes us forget we are watching a movie: we become so immersed in its exotic environment that it doesn’t seem possible a camera crew could be standing nearby documenting what we see. Yet another worthy Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this one deserves to be seen on a theater screen.