Review: "Embrace of the Serpent" thrives on subtlety
“Embrace of the Serpent” — Ciro Guerra’s 2016 Academy Award nominated film — is essentially one story told in two timelines. It’s about history repeating itself, and how the ignorance of one part of the world in particular may be the end of us.
The main character is an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate, and the two scientists — Theo, in the distant past, and Evan, 40 years later — who he attempts to assist on a journey to find a sacred healing plant in the Amazon jungle.
Theo and Evan are both scientists from the western world, and their ignorance to Karamakate’s culture and the more spiritual aspects of the jungle’s culture are the lynchpin of the film. The unsaturated nature of each frame of the film makes it clear that we are seeing the jungle through their perspective, even if Karamakate is our true protaginist.
“Embrace of the Serpent” intends to leave you in the dark on many facets of its story. It is light on exposition, backstory, or context. It only leaves you with a trail of clues as to who Theo and Evan are, why they are there, or even what time this all takes place in.
A similar effort is lacking in the thematic elements of the film though. The main idea of the film — that colonialists from the west have no apprectiation of the jungle’s true meaning to the world and only seek to destroy it for its resources — is laid out all too bluntly starting very early-on in the film.
Most of Karamakate’s dialogue can be boiled down to, “You white people don’t care about my jungle.” While Theo and Evan mostly say “I do, because it has this plant I want.” I left the movie feeling that the dialogue — which is translated to english from multiple languages — was much stronger pre-translation. It becomes a distractingly blunt element to a film obsessed with subtlety.
While the entire movie is made with a respectable committment to subtlety and reduced pace, it’s best moments are when the energy is turned up. Trips in both timelines to a nearby church camp not only get a rise in blood pressure from the audience, they also best exemplify the effect the west is having on the jungle society. An incredibly tense early scene where the explorers encounter a slave to the men feeding on the jungle for rubber is another high point for the film.
Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar are both consistently riveting as the young and old versions of Karamakate, but they don’t have adequate opponents in Jan Bijovet (Theo) and Brionne Davis (Evan). Bijovet’s performance is awkwardly wooden at times, and far over-the-top at others. Davis brings a mostly flat energy to a character that, admittedly, is not asked to do much.
Overall, “Embrace of the Serpent” is an impressive and fascinating film. It is made with a confident hand and manages to weave through some extremely resonant territory. Its noticeable shortcomings certainly don’t overwrite its very important message.