Embrace the mythical

Oscar-nominated Colombian film a modern masterpiece

Opens Friday, March 18. Starring Jan Bijvoet, Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolívar and Brionne Davis. Directed by Ciro Guerra. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 5.0

There are several stories in Embrace of the Serpent, the Colombian film that was one of the nominees for this year’s best foreign film Oscar. There are two separate journeys into the Amazonian jungle, in two separate eras, and two different explorer/scientists and the distinctive situations and people, indigenous and otherwise, that they encounter.

And a big part of what is fascinating about this rapt, haunting movie is the growing sense that the various stories and digressions are all part of a single story, a journey in time that is both circular and irreversible.

The explorer/scientists, both of whom are white men, travel to this remote region in search of Yakruna, a very rare plant that is believed to have extraordinary healing powers. Theo (Jan Bijvoet), a German who makes his journey in 1909, falls gravely ill and finds himself needing the attention of native healers. Evan (Brionne Davis), an American trying to retrace Theo’s steps sometime in the 1940s, finds himself in the midst of regional catastrophes that seem linked to the cultural “infections” of other eras, including Theo’s.

The two journeys are parallel as well as opposite, with the pair being linked most crucially by the presence of a shaman named Karamakate in both. The younger Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) is a heroic presence in 1909, a guide, adviser, healer and a vigorous defender of wilderness traditions. The older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) has lost touch with much of what he once was but is still heroic in his determination to join Evan in trying to recover secrets of the past, including his own.

The double incarnation of Karamakate sets up some intriguing and ironic contrasts with the “twin” explorer/scientists, with implications that are cultural, historical, political and (above all, I think) spiritual. The parallel journeys set up a pungent commentary on the human cost of colonialism, and the intricate intertwining of those doubled characterizations produces layers of meaning that seem both spiritual and psychological.

The link between the colonialism and corrupt religiosity is made evident in appalling scenes at a ramshackle Catholic mission that both explorers have occasion to visit. But the political and historical dimensions of this story are mainly powerful offshoots in a tale that scrambles narrative chronology on behalf of mythic poetry of a darkly enthralling sort.

David Gallego’s sensuous black and white cinematography is crucial to that poetry and to the film’s richly evocative sense of its jungle settings. Serpents are among the very first things we see in this movie, but the serpent of its title is a metaphor that alludes especially to “the river,” which in this case seems the source of vitality, magic, stories, spirit and much else.

Embrace of the Serpent is the work of Ciro Guerra. It’s his third feature film, and the first to get shown in U.S. theaters. His second film, The Wind Journeys, is available on video only, but it, too, strikes me as one of the masterpieces of recent world cinema.