The Colombian connection

Director Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpiente), which earned an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language Film, offers both a story (inspired by actual events) and a respectful exploration of an indigenous culture and people. It’s the first film shot in the Colombian Amazon in 30 years and one of the few to posit an indigenous character as its protagonist.

That would be Karamakate, played as a young man in the 1900s by Niblio Torres and then as an older man over 30 years later by Antonio Bolivar Salvador (himself one of the last surviving members of the Ocaina people).

The younger Karamakate acted as a guide for Theo (Jan Bijvoet), a German scientist doing research in the Amazon. The older Karamakate acts as a guide for Evan (Brionne Davis), likewise a German scientist who is retracting Theo’s steps, using his posthumously published diaries as a guide. As Karamakate recalls his earlier journey on the present one, he too is retracing his own steps – albeit as a wearier, more cynical individual.

During his lifetime, Karamakate has seen an unspoiled region encroached upon by civilization in its typically violent manner. “Progress” has come at a steep price. His tribe has been wiped out by rubber barons, the only world he has ever known is fast becoming extinct, and he is consumed with guilt for unwittingly hastening its demise.

Beautifully shot in black and white by cinematographer David Gallego, Embrace of the Serpent smoothly incorporates its message about environmental and cultural conservation in a sweeping, sometimes overlong, saga. A late sequence in which Karamakate and Evan encounter a cult of cannibals seems right out of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – and definitely enlivens the narrative – and a surreal, hallucinatory ending indicates that there are forces at work which go far beyond our realm of understanding. (In Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalin, Amazonian and Latin with English subtitles)

Embrace of the Serpent opens Friday