Ciro Guerra's profoundly beautiful Embrace of the Serpent, one of the nominees for best foreign language film at this year's Academy Awards, touches on many of the same themes that Terrence Malick (see the review of his Knight of Cups, Page 4) explored in his 2005 feature The New World.
Malick's film was about the arrival of the British on the shores of 1600s Virginia, with John Smith's meeting the beautiful Pocahontas of the Powhatans and white men from Europe invading and corrupting the virgin Americas.
Two white men from three centuries later in history - the German ethnographer and explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg, and the American biologist Richard Evans Schultes - are at the heart of Guerra's black-and-white gem.
Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet) is traveling the rivers of the Amazonian jungles of Colombia in 1909, accompanied by his guide and friend Manduca (Yauenkü Miguee), in search of a sacred plant, the yakruna. They encounter a fiercely protective shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), the last survivor of his people.
Initially, Karamakate is wary of the European, who has fallen ill, but the two become friends and traveling companions (along with Manduca), heading off to look for the rare and mystical yakruna.
The American Schultes (Brionne Davis) arrives in these same waters, and forests, in 1940, in search of the plant, but also in search of the places and people that Koch-Grünberg had encountered, and documented, 31 years before. (Guerra based his screenplay in part on Koch-Grünberg's journals.) Schultes, too, meets Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar as the older incarnation of the tribesman), and the men climb in a canoe and embark on their quest.
Embrace of the Serpent toggles back and forth between these two stories, linked by the figure of Karamakate and his relationship with the respective scientists.
Both narratives are very much about man's connection to the natural world, how the spirits of the water, earth, and sky imbue the spirit of man, and how the "cultured" people, the people looking to harvest the earth (or plunder it) - or to bring Christianity to the natives - throw that harmony into dire disarray.
What makes Embrace of the Serpent unique is that both of the strangers in this strange, wondrous land - Koch-Grünberg in 1909 and Schultes in 1940 - understand that relationship, and respect it.
In the company of Karamakate, the German explorer begins to shed his ties to the West - and literally jettisons the boxes of gear he has been lugging across the Yari River and its tributaries. Schultes, with his camera and his notebooks, seeks to know this place, its peoples, and what drove his predecessor with such passion.
Guerra's remarkable film dives deep into seemingly infinite forests, and deep, too, into the soul of man. It's the exploration of a lost culture, a lost history - a loss, the film suggests, that humankind may never fundamentally recover from.