Is it unreasonable to dislike a film because it is too good at what it’s trying to accomplish? It sounds like a problematic statement for a critic to make, but Embrace Of The Serpent is a perfect example of this idea in practice. What we have here is a smart and engaging look at the impact of imperialism on native peoples in the era of colonial expansion and how that still affects us today, but the film is so damn smart about its message that it isn’t confident that the rest of us dummies can keep up. It’s one thing for a film to be heady and thought-provoking, but it’s quite another to be so condescending that no thought is provoked at all despite intellectual material.
Filmed in black and white to evoke the aesthetic of classic adventure serials and films of a bygone era, Embrace Of The Serpent takes place over two time periods in the early twentieth century, 1909 and 1940. A man in each era seeks to find a rare medicinal and hallucinogenic plant deep within the Amazon, and must rely on the native Karamakate (played by a different actor in each time period) to guide them to the plant that he and his extinct people found sacred. Along the way, the parties encounter parallel troubles, most notably a mission that has converted local children to Christianity, only to have the lessons of the religion backfire in their translation to a native culture.
This is a film that deals constantly in dualities, providing a lot of symbolic fodder for analysis by film geeks that would still play to most casual viewers on at least a subconscious level. The contrasts of this film are all intertwined in a theme of imperialist impact on native tribes and the irreparable damage white culture has done to unknowing societies. The points of comparison are bountiful: the young spirited Karamakate and his old, worn down future self; the men he guides and their differing reasons for their journeys; the white characters and their native reflections and counterpoints. All of this is portrayed in classic adventure serial cinematographic style, all to draw attention to the fact that this is not a lighthearted adventure romp like its aesthetic inspirations.
However, whether because writer-director Ciro Guerra has no faith in an imperially-descended audience being able to grasp the gravity of his symbolism or because he just doesn’t have enough faith in the symbolism itself, Embrace Of The Serpent takes every opportunity to either over-explain itself through expositionary dialogue or the literalization of alluded concepts. It’s as if the film is constantly pointing to itself and saying, “Do you get it yet? Are the intricacies of my plotting coming through to you?” Yes, they are, and they were before you started spoon-feeding me the answers. It becomes condescending to the point of annoyance, and the two-hour runtime begins to feel infinitely longer because of it.
Embrace Of The Serpent has a lot of important things to say, and it has a worthwhile message to convey, so it would be disingenuous to label it as a bad movie. However, it places no faith in the intelligence of its audience, so it comes across as both alienating and patronizing. Maybe that was the point, and as a white colonial descendant I am too ingrained with privilege to see that the film was doing to me what my ancestors did to indigenous peoples. Or maybe that’s a message the film would have explained outright if it were present. Either way, the film stands as a good point delivered poorly.