The lonely noble who is the last of his tribe has been done many times on film however never with such cinematic beauty or thematic depth than in Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent.
The film follows a dual narrative between 1909 and 1940 as Karamakate must show two white men how to find the fictional Yakruna plant. In 1909, Theo is searching for it as a cure for his malaria whereas in 1940 Evan searches for it under the pretence that it can give him the power to dream.
Karamakate, in both his young and old forms, is one of the best characters to appear on screen this year. He is isolated and noble, clinging on to his heritage and his customs however not averse to laughing out loud at a white man trying to engage in Amazonian culture. Distrust of the white man, based on seeing the damage the rubber plantations have caused on native civilisations, forms the basis of his interactions with our two jungle explorers. Malarial Theo is a German ethnologist studying and interacting with the tribes of the Amazon, sending his journals back home to be published. It is these journals that bring Evan to Karamakate three decades later.
As the two tales progress in parallel to each other we learn about Amazonian culture and the effects of colonialism on the region. Whether it is in the differences between Karamakate and Manduca, Theo’s westernised assistant or an Apocalypse Now-esque religious encampment where the actions of thirty years earlier have led to a conglomeration of both societies which, as deemed by Karamakate, is the worst of both worlds in a genuinely terrifying segment.
The true star of the piece is of course the jungle itself. The brave decision to shoot the jungle entirely in black and white really pays off as it adds a dreamlike (and at times nightmarish) quality to the exquisitely shot film. Every frame is beautifully presented but never lingers too long, preventing it from being reduced to pompous cinematography. Where colour enters is in a trippy dream sequence with shades of 2001’s Stargate sequence. The score is sparing but effective, heralding the transitions between the two timelines and adding tension or background. Consisting mainly of tribal music there are tones of westernised bass that add a sense of foreboding.
It is fitting that the film is based off of the real life diaries of German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg, as I was completely immersed in the gorgeous and striking visuals and compelling performances, forgetting at times I was sitting in a cinema seat and not plonked in the middle of the monochromatic jungle. This is a film that truly gets under your skin. Whether it’s colonialism, loneliness or the abandonment of one’s culture there is a real depth to the themes that flow naturally throughout. Embrace of the Serpent is an unforgettable cinematic journey.