Embrace of the Serpent is a densely packed, swiftly moving river journey that is constantly nodding at beloved cinematic tropes. The Colombian film, nominated for best foreign language film at this year's Academy Awards, brings up images of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo and even Deliverance, by a short stretch of the imagination. Insanity inspired by the river and its surrounding wilderness, cultural conflict left behind and reencountered, and the punctuated momentum (alternating moments of paddling serenity with the anticipation of climbing ashore) all feel comforting—and like a part of a film that will soon join the ranks of our many river-based artistic landmarks.
This informed familiarity makes each one of the nuanced surprises in the beautiful Embrace of the Serpent (shot almost entirely in black-and-white 35 mm) all the more enjoyable. Centered on a shaman named Karamakate and his two interactions with white explorers/scientists over a span of decades, the film had me at odds in a wonderful way, believing at one moment that I knew exactly the director's intention and could predict the next plot point, and at the next moment feeling my slowly forming idea coming thoroughly unrooted by the baffling thing that had just occurred on-screen.
As I watched, I couldn't help but think about Charles Mudede's recent piece on the way in which white people artistically invent, impose, and maintain ideas of blackness. Embrace of the Serpent has been celebrated for its depiction of indigenous people; the protagonist is not an adventuring anthropologist or ethnobotanist, but a local shaman; the film employed mostly indigenous actors and made honest efforts to include the local community. It would've been silly to ignore the impact of colonialism and Western business interests in Colombia. But even though the story is told mostly through the perspective of Karamakate, it doesn't skim evenly throughout his life—rather, it revolves around his relationship to the white men who come to visit, and the subsequent havoc those men wreak on the fragile environments and communities. The film offers plenty of easy, uncomplicated allusions to tribal mysticism and the spiritual power of psychedelic substances, and that, combined with the narrative constructed around and by white men, had me ready to tear apart this universally acclaimed film.
And then the film ended in a way I didn't expect. The rug was pulled out from under me and I was fooled, once again, into thinking I knew what Embrace of the Serpent was getting at. Its layered and confusing elements pair perfectly with the straightforward, compelling plot, and its overall impression is highly diplomatic: white-centric enough to be nominated for an Oscar, but intelligent and complex enough to stand up to critiques of careless racism. It didn't win the Academy Award, but god, it at least deserves a weighty, sprawling spot in our cultural imagination.