A legitimate stunner in that word's truest sense, Colombian director Ciro Guerra's river-trip Embrace of the Serpent mesmerizes and jacks with you, leaving you not quite certain, at its end, how to go about the rest of your day. The film is beautiful and ferocious, calm and torrential, a plunge into the ol' heart of darkness and then some organ darker still. It's both an adventure movie — one as hardy and demanding as The Revenant but less preening about it — and a thorough brief on the horrors that civilization has wrought upon indigenous peoples. With a clever double-journey narrative that spans the first half of the 20th century, Guerra traces the devastating impact of white interlopers upon Amazonian tribes across generations. It's Apocalypse Then … and Later.
That's not to say it's without its pleasures. Much of the film is given to gliding along South America's great rivers in handmade canoes. The cameras of cinematographer David Gallego skim right along with the travelers, and we behold the marvels of South America in crisp, black-and-white widescreen. The drift of these journeys is seductive, irresistible, an aesthetic choice that gets at the moral complexities at play: We want to row deeper in, to see this hidden world and its people, despite knowing that the last thing they need is outsiders, well-meaning or not. When things and people go rotten, as they must, Guerra gets pedantic about it, even over the top, but that's hard to gainsay. What's gained by insisting artists depict the eradication of native cultures with reserve?
The main narrative is set in 1909, as German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet done up like T. Coraghessan Boyle) traverses the Colombian Amazon in search of a rare flower that the local tribes hold sacred — and that may hold great healing powers. He's led through a rainforest of undiscovered tribes, mad missionaries and enslaved rubber workers; his guide is a philosophical shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), the last surviving member of a tribe that, sadly, has been discovered. Lugging his boxes of plants and butterflies against his guide's advice and chowing down on fish he's been told not to eat, Theodor falls predictably sick, and Karamakate often administers a potent smoke-puff curative. But these men from different worlds — and one companion from both, the pants-wearing westernized native Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) — warm toward each other.
Almost every moment of cross-cultural understanding or pristine wild beauty is tinged with hints of corruption, with the sense that Theodor's very presence on this river will hasten its doom. He worries, early on, that the tribe that has stolen his compass will as a consequence lose its unique traditional methods of navigation, but he seems to harbor no such concern for the results of the work of a missionary encountered downstream. He doesn't worry over the conversion of souls until that work grows violent. In a hard-to-shake set piece, native children who have been rescued from the rubber plantations sing hymns in immaculate vestments — but then also suffer, at the hands of the priest, the kind of treatment the Romans visited upon his lord. Guerra is as unstinting with brutality as he is generous with beauty.
That mission sequence is a linchpin to the film's secondary narrative. In the 1940s, a second white explorer (Brionne Davis), this one American, also passes that way, also in search of the fabled yakruna plant, and also — we come to realize — led by a wiser Karamakate (played in this timeline by Antonio Bolivar). The decades have made life at that mission more perverse than it already was, a telephone game of biblical misinterpretation at the end of the world, with the priest's zeal and a parody of his doctrine meeting the strongman cruelty of the rubber barons. The best of civilization is represented in Embrace of the Serpent by that second yakruna hunter's beaten-up phonograph, with which he wows even Karamakate by spinning Haydn; the worst of civilization is there not just in the invaders' greed and duplicity but in the lesson of them, and in the unintended consequences of even their generous actions.