Although it may sound ridiculously contradictory, Columbian director Ciro Guerra’s absolutely beautiful black-and-white feature, Embrace of the Serpent, is both a highly complex tale that covers a period of 31 years in the Columbian Amazon, with a rather simple plot that basically repeats the first half in its geographical territory and goal, if not character, although even there, both voyages are overseen by Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar, as the elder, and Nilbio Torres as his younger self), an Amazonian shaman who has left his tribe after seeing many of them die in a takeover of their land by rubber barons.
Finally, convinced by the bond between the native Manduca and Théo, he agrees to go on the voyage in search of yakruna, in part, to see if, as Théo claims, members of his tribe still survive. It may seem odd to describe this hallucinatory film as a “road movie,” but that’s what it is, as the trio encounter the terrors of the river and the wonders of the jungle, including a visit to a horrifying Spanish Catholic Mission, where the native boys are regularly beaten and abused by the priest, Gaspar (Luigi Sciamanna), for their “pagan” behavior. The travelers destroy the priest’s reign, freeing the tortured boys. Yet, they never quite discover their goal, and Théo dies in the “hell-hole” he has been trying to escape, although not before uncovering many of its wonders and sending his diaries back to Germany for eventual publication.
Again, they encounter what is left of his tribe, and revisit what is left of the Spanish mission, in which the previously beaten boys have now grown up to become self-flagellating acolytes to a man who claims he is the messiah, who only accepts the two strangers into his company when they appear to be the Biblical Magi and when Karmakate temporarily cures the messiah’s wife. By the time they escape the madness of this religious commune, the messiah is demanding that his equally mad followers “eat of his flesh”—a demand that we can’t tell whether he means “literally,” as in a call for cannibalistic behavior, or is a call for sexual intercourse. The visitors have no choice but to seek a quick escape. Yet even here Karmakate demands that Evan given up all of his earthly possessions, which the American does, except his record player, in a kind of Herzogian desire to hear the cultural joys he will probably never encounter again. And music is essential in this film.