A legitimate stunner in that word's truest sense, Colombian director Ciro Guerra's river-trip Embrace of the Serpent mesmerizes and jacks with you, leaving you not quite certain, at its end, how to go about the rest of your day. The film is beautiful and ferocious, calm and torrential, a plunge into the ol' heart of darkness and then some organ darker still. It's both an adventure movie -- one as hardy and demanding as The Revenant but less preening about it -- and a thorough brief on the horrors that civilization has wrought upon indigenous peoples. With a clever double-journey narrative that spans the first half of the 20th century, Guerra traces the devastating impact of white interlopers upon Amazonian tribes across generations. It's Apocalypse Then … and Later.
That's not to say it's without its pleasures. Much of the film is given to gliding along South America's great rivers in handmade canoes. The cameras of cinematographer David Gallego skim right along with the travelers, and we behold the marvels of South America in crisp, black-and-white widescreen. The drift of these journeys is seductive, irresistible, an aesthetic choice that gets at the moral complexities at play: We want to row deeper in, to see this hidden world and its people, despite knowing that the last thing they need is outsiders, well-meaning or not. When things and people go rotten, as they must, Guerra gets pedantic about it, even over the top, but that's hard to gainsay. What's gained by insisting artists depict the eradication of native cultures with reserve?