The story at the heart of Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” is nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Stranger in a strange land ventures into the heart of darkness with the help of a native shaman? Yeah, been there, done that.
What sets the film apart, however, is the perspective the film provides. Rather than telling a story of colonialism through the eyes of the colonizers, Guerra and co-writer Jacques Toulemonde Vidal look through the viewpoint of the colonized. Karamakate, an indigenous resident of the Amazon rainforest, takes two white men on a journey along the river as they search an elusive botanical bounty. These treks are separated by four decades, though the charade of caring that masks earnest exploitation remains the same.
It’s a shame that Guerra has little of note to see through Karamakate’s eyes. The hunt for a plant believed to have magical powers provides scant cinematic magic. While lushly shot in stark black and white by David Gallego, “Embrace of the Serpent” invites only the most lukewarm embraces of its jungle world. The film primarily states what most educated viewers already know about colonial incursions into unwelcome areas as well as the wisdom of that land’s native inhabitants. B- /