“It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.” — Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”

“Embrace of the Serpent,” Ciro Guerra’s stunning, hypnotic black and white Best Foreign Film nominee, has come to us almost by surprise, drowned out by the Oscars’ embrace of “Son of Saul” and sliding in like a whisper without any of the usual media bursts of colored light.

“Embrace” is both an allegory and an intense, sometimes frightening drama and psychedelic mind trip that embraces an almost vanishing primal spirituality.

We meet four characters. First, Theo (Jan Bijvoet “Borgman”) who arrives in the deep forest of the Amazon in 1904, a German naturalist and researcher seeking a mysterious healing plant, Yakuna, a legendary plant that may or may not cure a multitude of deadly illnesses.

When we meet him, he is a sick man afloat in a canoe paddled by an aide.

The film then slips back and forth between Theo, the German in 1904, and the modern scientist of the 1940s, American Evan (Brionne Davis), both hunting for Yakuna.

The German has obviously contracted one of the mysterious ailments the natives have long grown immune to and now is near death.

He seems to have been, for some time, floating aimlessly down this mysterious river in the care of bilingual guide Manduca (Miguel Ramos), when they come to a clearing and are confronted by the shaman Karamakate, a young, stoic man of the forest (Nilbio Torres). We will meet Karamakate again years later in the ’40s as an elderly but still powerful shaman played by Antonio Bolivar.

The younger Karamakate is an embittered, angry survivor of a tribe long destroyed by the white men who came seeking gold and then rubber and who, even today, savage the pristine rain forest.

Karamakate doesn’t trust them, but touched by the suffering of a stranger, agrees to try to save the dying Theo.

The river in “Embrace” is clearly the fabled river in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” even as we meet along the way a psychopathic Kurtz-like cult leader with a crown of thorns who fancies himself the new Jesus and rules over a tribe of drugged, robotic, cannibalistic natives. This is where the horror begins.

The voyage in “Embrace of the Serpent,” unfolding back and forth like an old map between the two leading characters, is too packed with adventures to describe in one column. It truly has to be seen to be believed.

Director Guerra and master cameraman David Gallego fill the screen with a mesmerizing swirl of spirituality, mysticism and psychedelic poetry. The river becomes the main character taken from Conrad’s stream and the mythological river Styx, even down to the Charon-like guide taking the seekers deep into the madness.

Guerra’s choice of black and white was a wise one. Color (there is a splash in the end) would have weakened the impact.

The actors, Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar sharing the role of Karamakate, and Bijvoet and Davis as the explorers, are perfectly cast. “Embrace of the Serpent,” brilliant, gorgeous to watch, but haunting and disturbing in the way it reminds us of our complacency.

Guerra is showing us the trance we’ve fallen into as we stand on the banks of the 21st century blinded by the false sun of technology, while watching our beautiful Mother Earth drift down a final dark river on a stygian journey to oblivion.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.