White dudes in boats are rarely a promising sight for natives who inhabit the land. Embrace of the Serpent takes this truism to its surreal extreme. Ciro Guerra's based-on-true-events period piece follows two different treks down the Amazon in the early- and mid-20th century, both ostensibly in the name of science. Their true aims are in line with most such visits throughout history, whether recent or ancient: to exploit a rare natural resource for their own purposes.
In the first expedition, a deathly ill explorer named Theodor Koch-Grünberg claims knowledge of a tribe that's thought to be extinct; the second concerns biologist Richard Evans Schultes' search for a plant Koch-Grünberg wrote about 30 years earlier. Both men are guided along by Karamakate, a ruminative shaman whose suspicion of Schultes is more than warranted by his experience with the earlier visitor — as well as the fact that he believes himself to be the last remaining member of the tribe in question.
Guerra jumps back and forth between the two timelines, each informing our understanding of the other and shifting our loyalties to and fro. Subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the flora and fauna mark the passage of time and the pillaging of natural resources. What's known but not openly admitted is that neither man's search for yakruna, a mystical plant said to contain curative properties, is being carried out with the noblest of intentions.
When asked about yakruna by Schultes, Karamakate balks — he knows that it brings out the worst in natives and outsiders alike. This is Embrace of the Serpent's one plant to rule them all, a supposed panacea that many seek but few understand. This land has already been torn apart by civil war and avaricious rubber barons; why would Karamakate help bring about its end? Now in the twilight of his life, he asks little more than to live out the rest of his days without seeing his home further eroded.
Meanwhile, Koch-Grünberg's illness is kept at bay by another plant, this one administered in a most visual way: through a straw inserted into the nose of the afflicted. When the would-be doctor blows on the other end, a quick puff of medicinal dust explodes into the air and jolts the patient into temporary lucidity. Karamakate's treatment comes with conditions: no meat or fish before the rains begin; no cutting any tree from its root; no intercourse until the moon changes phases. These terms are non-negotiable, which isn't to say they're honored.
But it is the yakruna that brings about Embrace of the Serpent's most visually arresting sequence, a hallucinatory vision at film's end that I couldn't spoil if I tried. Guerra's film is a trip unto itself, beautiful even when it's harsh — which is often. Cutaways to the stillness of the river, water snakes gliding through its quiet waves, and jaguars silently hunting in the brush are all moody scene-setters, as well as reminders that there's always violence just beneath the placid surface. Guerra and cinematographer David Gallego capture the primal and cosmic visuals alike in stark black-and-white photography, lending an almost timeless quality to the increasingly dreamlike journeys.
When all this is over, you might not be able to put what you've just seen into words or even say definitively where physical reality ends and drug-induced reverie begins. But you'll feel like you've just seen something true, like a dust that settles on the ground and changes everything it touches.
Embrace of the Serpent
Directed by Ciro Guerra
Opens Friday, Uptown Theatre