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Embrace of the Serpent is like no other movie I've ever seen

The Colombian Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film is a stunning journey into the jungle.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I've never seen a movie quite like Embrace of the Serpent.



The Colombian nominee for Best Foreign Film at the upcoming Academy Awards is at once an adventurous tale of exploration, an examination of the scars of colonialism, and a weirdly hypnotic dream of a movie.

Embrace of the Serpent tells two straightforward and conventional stories about explorers searching for a long-lost flower purported to have mystical powers, but it sets them decades apart and intercuts them so that one set in the 1940s might pick up seemingly in the middle of a scene set in the 1900s.

Oh, and did I mention it was filmed entirely in the Amazon jungle, and that the characters in it speak numerous different languages?

It's an addictive, transfixing, beautiful film, and if it's playing anywhere near you, it's worth checking out immediately.

The last survivor of an Amazonian tribe is the film's protagonist

Karamakate in Embrace of the Serpent
Karamakate (played here, as an older man, by Antonio Bolivar) is the central character of Embrace of the Serpent.

At the center of Embrace of the Serpent is Karamakate, the last member of an Amazonian tribe that has been exterminated. As both a young and an old man, Karamakate joins a white explorer who wants to travel down the Amazon into the heart of the jungle, where he hopes to find the aforementioned flower.

Thus, Karamakate is played by two actors (Nilbio Torres when the character is young; Antonio Bolivar when he's old), and it's amazing how much both men capture his isolation, the way you can almost feel his crushing loneliness. In both halves of the movie, Karamakate has been cast adrift. He could almost feel like a spirit of the jungle, summoned when he's most needed.

But that paints far too mystical a portrait of the character. If that were true, he would be a sort of "magical Amazonian," a figure who only exists to help a white person achieve a new level of inner peace and self-awareness. What's sort of remarkable about Embrace of the Serpent is that it tells a version of that story, but the white person is almost completely incidental to it.

Indeed, there are times when the film all but suggests that as far as Karamakate is concerned, both explorers he meets (who are based on real people) are the same man, just in different guises. Director Ciro Guerra might send one of them off into the jungle, only to have the other slip back out, and it's all the same to Karamakate — he's simply gotten older.

The result is that Embrace of the Serpent at once feels purposeful, in that the characters are always headed toward a concrete goal, and a little unbalanced, in that it seems to take place in a world where dream logic applies more than actual logic. It's technically an adventure film, centered on unlikely companions embarking on an unusual journey, but it's also a post-apocalyptic story about being the only person left alive after a tremendous cataclysm.

This is a movie about what it means to lose everything

The Amazon in Embrace of the Serpent.
The Amazon is a character in its own right in Embrace of the Serpent.

Slowly and steadily, Embrace of the Serpent reveals itself as a story about tremendous loss and the intense emotions Karamakate feels over the death of almost everyone he's ever known or cared about.

It's a story about trying to preserve the ways of Karamakate's tribe, even though there are no tribe members left to learn those ways. As such, he has to impart them to the foreigners he travels with. Those men will write down these lessons for future generations to hear about, even as Karamakate fades from history.

But before this scenario can become too emotionally overwhelming, for either characters or audience, Embrace of the Serpent works in many unusual encounters and moments, as when Karamakate and his traveling companions meet a man guarding a grove of rubber trees, or two very different but equally disturbing visits to a monastery hidden away in the jungle groves. Guerra approaches the timeline of his film almost like the Amazon River itself, winding around and doubling back. You can return to the same place and feel like it's somewhere altogether new.

He also films the story in luscious black and white, with long, unblinking images of the jungle. While Embrace of the Serpent has lots of energy, almost all of that energy is generated by the actors moving around in the frame, rather than from any quick cutting or anything similar.

Meanwhile, David Gallego's cinematography captures the way the jungle can feel incredibly alien — but he also makes it feel more and more like home as the film goes on and we come to identify more with Karamakate.

I'm making Embrace of the Serpent sound more high-minded than it feels while watching it. Guerra packs the story with enough stuff that there's always something weird or funny or interesting happening onscreen. And as the movie approaches its ending, it finds something true and wise in its many, many incidents, drawing them together into a larger meaning.

Everything is fleeting, says Embrace of the Serpent, even a whole tribe, or a way of life. But there is something running between us, some throughline, that is eternal, symbolized by that ever-rolling river. We live and we die, but we pass pieces of ourselves forward, and in so doing we live again, both as memories and as hazy reflections cast on muddy water.

Embrace of the Serpent is playing in New York and Los Angeles. It will open throughout the country in the next several months. You can find out when it's playing near you here.