There is a sequence midway through the Oscar-nominated Colombian film that completely rouses the film out of all torpor and eliminates suspicion that it will turn into a New Age yarn altogether more admirable than interesting. In that scene we watch what happens when a long trek up the Amazon River suddenly finds a mission in the jungle whose presiding priest is engaged in converting the “heathen” of the jungle (all of whom seem to be boys).
Before the expeditionaries depart from the mission to travel up river in search of a sacred medicinal plant, we see that the “conversion” method of the intolerant missionary includes flogging children at midnight.
Nor is that all that happens at the mission.
The film shows us two expeditions in search of the medicinal plant, 30 years apart. The first one involves an explorer who needs the drug to live. The second, decades later, involves the same guide, a tribal shaman who has now lost his own people to despoilers completely. The second expedition with the same guide finds, at that mission, a settlement straight out of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” where the community leader calls himself “The Messiah.”
When told that his new visitors are searching for a “sacred” plant, he snarls to one and all “the only thing sacred in this jungle is me.” In “the Messiah’s” community, says the wise shaman, the jungle natives now suffer from “the worst of both worlds.”
Mister Kurtz, he ain’t so dead after all. Obviously, we’re going to remember Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse, Now.” And just to make it fancy, we may remember Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” But just to be shamelessly realistic about the narrative here, it’s also worth remembering that movie expeditions up jungle rivers were the heart of Tarzan movies, too, and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
“Embrace of the Serpent” walks a perilous but reasonably well-drawn line that separates the profound from the fatuous.
The film is gorgeously photographed in black and white but as it goes on, the distinctive cinematography might well awaken the suspicion that you’re being lulled by the beauty of reassuring mindlessness.
When color suddenly flares up in film’s final cosmic two minutes, the B.S. is enough to give some of us the feeling that earnest spirituality has given us, ultimately, an up-market shaggy dog story. It’s a good thing there’s a master of this sort of movie – Terrence Malick – and that his new movie is scheduled to open March 25.
It’s not that we’re not adequately immersed in the corruptions white Europeans brought to jungle civilization – the despoilments of the “rubber barons,” the Colombian conquistadors, the ideological rapine of “converting” missionaries.
Against that, is a shaman telling two different seekers of the medicinal plant that “every tree, every flower is full of wisdom” and that “knowledge belongs to all men.” He tells his drug seekers, “you can’t understand that because you’re nothing but a white.”
So don’t, in other words, insist that the jungle dwellers can’t have your compass – the first they’ve ever seen.
It is the darkness, though, of white civilization in the heart of this film that prevents the film from falling apart as its heroes are advised by their guide to be “vagabonds of dreams.”
The Amazon, says the shaman, is “the anaconda’s son” in the mythology of his now-vanished people.
The film is based on authentic diaries by 19th and 20th century Amazon explorers. It’s a good thing it is too because some of its New Age mythology threatens through its entire length to squeeze the life out of it.
It’s worth seeing despite an unfortunate ending that isn’t.
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT
3 stars (out of four)
Starring: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar
Director: Ciro Guerra
Running time: 125 minutes
Rating: Unrated but PG-13 equivalent for strong imagery of cruelty to children.
The Lowdown: Oscar-nominated Colombian film about two separate expeditions up the Amazon River jungle 30 years apart to find a magic healing drug. In Spanish and Amazonian tribal languages with subtitles.