A few minutes into Colombian director Ciro Guerra's "Embrace of the Serpent" we have met three of its four main characters, and they have encountered each other. In black and white, period-set images of the Amazonian jungle reminiscent of Miguel Gomes' "Tabu," a canoe carrying a gravely ill white man, Theo ("Borgman" star Jan Bijvoet), is punted onto the bank by the loyal native tribesman who serves as his traveling companion. On the bank stands a lone tribal shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), whose painted face, loin cloth, feathered armbands, phallic-looking necklace and erect, impassive stance seem an unspoken rebuke to the western-clothed native who has come to plead with Karamakate to save his white friend's life. That rebuke is soon spoken, however, in no uncertain terms: Karamakate has nothing but loathing for the white man who wiped out his tribe, and nothing but contempt for a native who might abet one of their number.
But Theo, an explorer/scientist/anthropologist, offers Karamakate perhaps the only thing in all the mystical universes that might change his mind: the slender hope that members of his tribe survive and Theo knows where to find them. In a rage of confusion, Karamakate runs off and petulantly destroys the inside of his hut, before returning to the men and agreeing to nurse Theo, provided they lead him back to the remnants of his people. It is a human moment that points to the remarkable job Guerra does throughout of making the tragic, unforgettable figure of Karamakate, who is played by two different actors in the film's two different time periods, both unknowably foreign and exotic in culture, yet totally human and relatable in motivation and psychology. Just a few minutes in, the viewer is entirely submerged in this fantastical, quasi-mythical, soul-crushing yet often very funny story.
Somewhere between a rebel yell and a lullaby, a primal scream and a Homeric lament, "Embrace of the Serpent" is the kind of wildly original work that the Cannes Directors' Fortnight sidebar was built in hopes of discovering. The making of the film, according to the director’s short preamble prior to the screening, was an arduous, drawn-out process — yet again, it seems that filming in the Amazon region "Fitzcarraldo"-style, presented its very specific set of physical and psychological challenges. Yet none of the arduousness behind-the-scenes shows in the final film, which unfolds with a stunning directorial sureness (and this is only Guerra's third feature) and a layered intelligence that at times lands an insight so wincingly wise and true it takes your breath away. So, when Theo becomes angry when a tribal chief steals his compass, because he fears the technology will erode the native know-how of celestial navigation, Karamakate skewers his condescension, saying simply "You cannot forbid them to learn."
Because the backdrop against which both strands of the story unfold is the disappearance of the native tribes, and the shocking crimes against humanity that the white settlers perpetrated on them in the name of the rubber industry. These men invaded and ravaged the lands the natives had lived in concert with for centuries, stole their know-how, and subjugated entire peoples into the most vicious slavery, brought to horrifying life in one of the film's most nightmarish sequences.
The story is set first in the early 1900s and then in the 1940s, when Karamakate (played as an older man by Antonio Bolivar) again encounters a white man seeking his help: plant enthusiast, Evan (Brionne Davis), who has read Theo's book and comes in search of the rare flower, the Yakruna, that cured him. But it's not only the infrequent shifts between the two strands that lend an unusual edge to the style. The luscious black and white photography from DP David Gallego is never just pretty, there is always something unsettling and dark lurking in its corners, a sense aided by a spectacularly evocative sound design from Carlos Garcia.
But most of all, Guerra's storytelling, inspired by the writings of two real-life pioneering Amazon explorers, on whom his two white characters are loosely based, seethes with an authenticity and immediacy that it's hard to remember many other period films achieving. Which is not to say there are no missteps: When Evan and Karamakate return to the mission site to discover an isolated cult with a self-declared Messiah in charge, it becomes an all-out horror movie very quickly. Now, as a self-contained segment, it is brilliant and terrifying, but it feels out of place tonally with the rest of the film. And it is also just a little long, even before it goes full-on "2001" in a color hallucination sequence late on, with the shaman's spell it casts wearing off just fractionally before it ends.
But these reservations stack up to nothing at all next to the unearthly beauty of this film, and its ancient, soulful wisdom, shot through with a colossal sadness. While it may deal in massive ideas about colonialism, genocide, religious hypocrisy and the legacy of resource exploitation in one of the most primal places on Earth, Guerra's talent is to funnel all that background into an intimate, deeply felt story of four individual men and two canoes.
"Embrace of the Serpent" is simply a work of art, and one of the most singular cinematic experiences you could hope to have in Cannes, or anywhere really. It's an absorbing, even thrilling head trip. It is a Heart-of-Darkness voyage of discovery. It is a lament for all the lost plants and peoples of the world. But it will maybe live longest for me in Karamakate: an immaculate portrait of the unfathomable loneliness and crushing survivor's guilt that comes with being the last of one's kind. [A]