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.
The moral dynamic is complex. At one point, Theo explains how a compass works to a tribal leader he’s friendly with. The chieftain then steals Theo’s compass, offering to barter for it but refusing to part with the technology. The professor violently remonstrates: not because he needs the compass, but because the natives’ techniques for navigation will be supplanted and thus recede from history. To Karamakate, as to a politically correct viewer, Theo is guilty of rank paternalism. But this sin is diminished in the grand scheme of the plot—not to mention the whip-arc of colonialism.
The parallel timelines feed into one another, with the vine-shadowed rapids serving as a beautiful if blunt metaphor. Guerra’s camera, at one key juncture, tracks laterally from a boat carrying Karamakate in one era to a boat carrying him in old age with nothing but ancient dappled river in between. More crucially, the crosscutting builds historical scale. A Catholic mission that, in 1909, is operated by monks who beat local customs out of indigenous children becomes, in 1940, the blood cult of a self-proclaimed (caucasian) messiah. This episode snaps into focus the phrases I heard in eulogies for Gabriel García Márquez—the idea that Latin America was the last outpost of a lost empire, shrouded by an arcane and undying authority whose fangs were whet by chaos. It also occasions the only line of dialogue in English: “This is madness.” It’s spoken by a Bostonian played by Brionne Davis, the second white man. Unlike Theo, Evan’s motives are not entirely clear. But both follow the medicine man to the sacred hallucinogen that he cultivates: a literal tree of knowledge that, like the people who celebrated its illuminative powers, has been abused to the brink of extinction.
The final bough of a felled tree, Karamakate is, as a work of imagination and embodiment, invaluable. Torres, the actor who plays him as a young man, is a laborer from the rainforest who had never been to the movies before being cast in this one. Physically, he suggests the photographs of American slaves whose crackled faces look eons older than their brawny torsos. Torres is an elusive 30. Spider-leg lines furrow his brow and orbit his eyes, a web of wisdom against which impetuosity bucks; his feathered trunk brims with all the strength of nature. Karamakate’s tribe was wiped out when he was a boy, ushering in an exile that stubbornness prolonged. For an orphan like him, a father-figure like Theo is a tantalizing risk.
I’m aware of no analogy for Karamakate’s station in Western culture. He’s doctor, historian, poet, and priest; trustee to an overwhelming legacy; an old soul damaged too young. When Theo dictates a letter to his wife, the shaman interrupts him with cocky laughter. He scoffs at the Wagnerian sentiments without understanding the words. Pining for a woman makes the European seem soft; next, Karamakate suggests, the professor will be professing his love for him. But there’s no indication that this loner has himself ever been with a woman—or ever will be. We see the lost boy in the weeping old man who interprets his gathering dementia as the silent treatment from above. He’s a wounded healer, a tragic hero in a one-man show. The two amateurs who play him break your heart as one.
Bookended roughly between world wars, Embrace of the Serpent presents a Western viewer with a shadow of familiar history; the evil absorbed by the Amazon is without definitive contours—it’s second-hand. History, as it was experienced by Karamakate, had flowed in parallel, until it was dammed. This project may have been undertaken with more anthropological than aesthetic urgency, but the fineness from which Karamakate is hewn is its treasure. The film breathes with him; the pace is in synch with the stately rhythm of his movements, themselves the heartbeat of the jungle.
Though Karamakate is the kind of character who stays in one’s memory, he does so by standing in relief against Bijvoet’s Theo. They both stand in contrast to the environment, and what’s been made of it. Tall, wiry, and plumed with a Grecian beard, Theo channels the romantic self-assurance of a 19th-century European—it’s distinct from, but related to, the kind of disposition that curdled into imperial adventurism. Theo is a purist in an impure system. When he sees the depredations of other whites—both the religionists and rubber barons—the academic reacts with compassion for the victims, but not with any discernible shame. Possibly, he’s too sick to react. Either way, the artistic decision is clear. Theo is a modern man in every sense except the most: self-consciousness. We don’t need to see him turn to the audience and tweet #NotAllWhiteMen with his eyes.
But, even with Karamakate as our witness as well as our guide, this film is more than a rebuke to unwoke movies about minorities (The Last King of Scotland, The Help, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, ad nauseum) that are presented from—and for—white eyes. It is revealed, at the end of this movie, that Theo and Evan were based on real figures; their field books are the only extant records of several long-lost tribes. It is a sad irony that the legacy of Karamakate’s tribe should fall into the hands of the same peoples who destroyed it, but the filmmakers refuse to reduce that irony to a bitter one. Their moral vision is simply too expansive. In truth, they do not want for sympathy for those who desire purity. It is what Theo tries to preserve by withholding the compass, and what prevents him from understanding that it’s too little, too late. It’s what drives Karamakate to his self-imposed isolation—and the serpent that bites his Achilles’ heel.
Fluidity leaks all the way into the title, which slithers through a semantic gap: Is it the serpent that’s embracing or is it being embraced? More to the point: Should the serpent be embraced? Can it? These questions haunt the healer who cannot repair his own loss without abandoning the dead who have filled it. A people may have died with Karamakate, but Embrace of the Serpent ensures that their memory is no longer his burden alone.