Embrace of the Serpent could easily, uh, embrace the noble savage trope that so often caricatures any native society and sacrifices their humanity on the altar of some easy comparison between a broad nature-worshipping trope and the rapaciousness of the West. Maybe Guerra, being closer to this history and not plagued with the dramatically dulling effect of liberal white guilt, is better suited to tell this story than the Kevin Costners and Ed Zwicks of the world, because nothing like it approaches Embrace of the Serpent. The native characters here are fully realized people, and their deep understanding of the flora and fauna of the jungle doesn't absolve them from the pettiness and impulsivity that characterizes humanity. Manduca, a former peon/slave at a rubber plantation, has a run-in with a current peon/slave that is as blackly hilarious as it horrifying. The younger Karamakate is a Brazilian Llewelyn Moss, callous until his conscience is yelling in his ear, and when he does agree to join Theo and Manduca, he never stops haughtily laughing at them for deigning to do things different than he would do them. It's difficult to remember the last time a tribal character, complete with stone age weapons and loincloth, was portrayed so recognizably and in a way far more likely to engender empathy than making the character into an all-knowing cipher at one with the universe.
Though Guerra doesn't bludgeon the viewer with the righteousness of societies in a state of pre-history, it's not like he and Vidal are letting Western colonialists off easy. The specter of rubber plantations and their brutality hang over the earlier story. In the 1940's, there's a feeling of emptiness that implies that the tide has come in and washed much of the earlier story's vitality away in exchange for this more sedate world that is slowly fading, much like the creeping dementia that Karamakate now suffers from. The progression in white companions is also demonstrative. Both Theo and Evan want something from this region, but the former is seeking knowledge and health while the latter is purely transactional and exploitative in his goals. Karamakate serves both men while also keeping his own counsel. He joins them out of guilt and loneliness, but also because they might be the only ways that his tribe's knowledge survives after his death. Western powers might steal the labor of his countrymen and the resources of his homeland, but they can at least preserve the hard-won expertise of his culture.
Blending a visual style reminiscent of Coppola and Malick, Embrace of the Serpent is stuffed with beautiful imagery. For an environment as vibrant as the Amazon rainforest, black and white seems an odd choice, but Guerra and cinematographer David Gallego make up in composition what they lose in color. A centerpiece shot of white moths fluttering around the young Karamakate is painterly, with the white of the moths popping against the dark colors of the dense undergrowth. Within so much of the landscape is the mystery and danger that Apocalypse Now trafficked in, that understanding that humans are in there somewhere, but also a question of if they should be.
Dedicated to 'the people whose song we'll never know,' Embrace of the Serpent resonates with lost customs and societies fighting a losing battle. As refreshing as it is entrancing, it makes a utilitarian case for respecting the kinds of tribal societies on display, something far more appealing than a condescending appeal to mysticism and woo. Guerra does go slightly down this path towards the end, which puts a damper on some of my enthusiasm, but the bulk of his film is humanist in a way I can scarcely remember a similar story being. Inquiry and exploration are as natural to a human that's never left the Amazon as it is to one who's traveled the world, just as insularity and tribalism are, and this film understands that in its bones. B+