Decades apart, two white scientists delve into the Amazonian rainforest in search of a rare plant with medicinal and hallucinatory qualities, with the assistance of a local shaman on opposite ends of his own life journey. Embrace of the Serpent attempts to frame the destruction of the rainforest’s ecology and peoples as a slow-motion tragedy on scales both personal and cultural, but it is more intriguing in its ambitions, which frustrate it, than in it successes, which are limited.
Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra and his cinematographer, David Gallego, shoot in black-and-white, which is at once visually distinctive but also rather flattening, as if we are not meant to see the beautiful landscape in its full glory… and maybe we aren’t, in the hopes (perhaps) that we will focus on the tribal cultures being destroyed by invading Europeans and Americans. But those cultures are only glimpsed sideways, via shaman Karamakate (played as a young man by Nilbio Torres, and as an old man by Antonio Bolivar), the last of his tribe, as he reluctantly guides German ethnologist Theo (Jan Bijvoet: The Broken Circle Breakdown), in the early 1900s, and American botanist Evan (Brionne Davis), in the 1940s, on what becomes tours of cultural ruination.
There are moments that are briskly challenging to Western ideals — including the impulse on the part of some to protect indigenous peoples, who may not necessarily want protection from everything the larger world has to offer — and other moments that descend into abject silliness. (One 1940s scene set in a Christian mission that has descended into “the worse of both worlds” is more like Green Inferno-esque schlock horror than the would-be mind-trip of the rest of the film.) It’s true that this was inspired by the real-life travel and exploration diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg, a German, and Richard Evans Schultes, an American, but this does keep Serpent’s perspective rather distant from the very people it is meant to be enlightening us about.