The last of anything gets a leg up in the ranks of tragedy; the loss of a people ascends to the highest rungs. I was pleased to see that Embrace of the Serpent, the first Colombian contender for Best Foreign Language Film, played to a packed house when I saw it a month ago. This movie features a shaman who’s the last of his tribe played, in advanced age, by a performer who’s among the last of his own. Its stated purpose is to preserve a fading memory. It is more, however, than a specimen jar with first-world guilt reflecting back from the glass. In its (sometimes juddery) black and white, the Amazon cools to wending mercury. It’s veined with life yet still.
At the risk of making the sort of critique I don’t particularly like to make, most white-men-where-they-don’t-belong movies—including Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, the Wrath of God—are conceived from the conquistadors’ point of view. Though imperialism is shown to wreak havoc on the foreign environments where it has beached—Vietnam in the first example and the Andes in the second—the narratives seem to be generated less by thoughts of genocide than suicide: by white man reckoning with his own corruption rather than examining the effects his corruption has had on others. That one-sided approach does not take away from those movies or from their filmmakers’ perspectives. But it does redound to this film that its director, Ciro Guerra, has cultivated a fluid perspective that’s thorned by prejudices on both ends. He has the grace to find wisdom in those wounds.
The shaman, Karamakate, is the point-of-view character. The action shifts between his hot-headed younger self (Nilbio Torres) to a 30ish-years-older version (Antonio Bolívar), lonely no longer by choice, for whom senility is creeping in like the first volley of a summer storm. In both timeframes, he encounters a white man; in short, he distrusts the wrong one. The first is a German anthropologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is stricken with a disease that only Karamakate is thought able to cure. Abetting a perceived enemy is a bitter pill for the medicine man to swallow; he shoots medicaments like cannonballs up the dying man’s nose. Theo’s frail white wrists clasp the shaman’s after each ministration, completing a fraught pietà.