Columbian director Ciro Guerra takes us on a slow, black-and white-tour of the Amazon River basin sliding between tales of two white scientists from different eras blundering into cultural labyrinths. The obviousness of the imperialist issues — Guerra’s film makes enemies of European rubber barons, the Catholic Church, and Columbians — is offset by a mystical quest for a plant that both heals and enlightens. It may be a myth but it comes to represent a certain species of apocalyptic experience too.
Did I mention it was slow? A cross between Heart of Darkness and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Guerra’s film is painstakingly gorgeous all the way through. Not only the riverside going by, or the deep jungle and occasional beast, but even the people in the movie will haunt you. Guerra cast so-called “natural” actors Niblio Torres and Antonio Bolivar who both play the shaman-esque Karamakate at different ages, interacting with the white questers in riverside set pieces that begin with chatty non-events around the fireside and lead to a horrific scene where Christianity and cannibalism come together in fitting chaos.
The philosophy is Buddhism lite but the pace can feel wearing. Art films are allowed to be slow and loose — this clocks in at two hours but feels longer — but they still need to feel tightly woven with meanings. Scenes of passing water and jumping birds ought to harbor some crux of beauty or terror. Embrace has scattered shocks and a non-gratuitous hallucination-fest, and Guerra has a vision to impart. Be patient. His jungle demon dreams will infiltrate your own.