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‘Embrace of the Serpent’ review: A mesmerizing journey down the Amazon

"Embrace of the Serpent" follows a journey along a river that spans 40 years. Credit: AP

PLOT An Amazonian shaman encounters two Western scientists, 40 years apart, who define his fate.

CAST Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar Salvador, Jan Bijvoet

UNRATED

LENGTH 2:05

PLAYING AT Manhasset Cinemas, Malverne Cinema 4, Sag Harbor Cinema, Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington

BOTTOM LINE A new trip down an ancient river, with shades of “Apocalypse Now” and “Aguirre: Wrath of God.” Mesmerizing and occasionally mind-altering. (In Spanish, with English subtitles)

The first image we see in Ciro Guerra’s spellbinding “Embrace of the Serpent” is of an animal — a human one, played by Nilbio Torres. This graceful, muscular creature is watching over his native habitat, but there’s nothing reductive — or romantic — about him. “Embrace of the Serpent,” which spans 40 years in the colonial and post-colonial eras of the Amazon, argues that man, despite his best efforts, remains merely one part of nature.

Torres, a 30-year-old, nonprofessional actor, is riveting as Karamakate, a shaman and one of the last of his people to survive the whites who harvested rubber from the rain forest using locals as slaves. When another man from a different tribe, Manduca (Yauenku Miguee), brings him a disease-stricken German scientist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), Karamakate initially refuses to help the invader.

But a bargain is struck: If Karamakate will take Theo to the mythical yakruna plant that can cure him, Theo will point the way to Karamakate’s last surviving people. Thus begins a journey along a river that will take the three men to places where the clash between cultures has resulted in insanity and death. Still, some 40 years later, Karamakate (played by an older but equally mesmerizing Antonio Bolivar Salvador) feels that his journey remains unfinished. Another scientist, Evan (Brionne Davis), appears with a new request that may hold the key to his fate.

Filmed in black and white, the Oscar-nominated film recalls Francis Ford Coppola’s nightmarish “Apocalypse Now” (based on Joseph Conrad’s novella of the Congo, “Heart of Darkness”) and Werner Herzog’s mystical “Aguirre: Wrath of God” (set on the Amazon River in the 16th century). It’s a film of journey more than plot, but each episode is visceral and searing. Switching between past and present, sometimes within a single shot, “Embrace of the Serpent” can feel almost mind-altering. It’s an immersion into a different world, with an alternate sense of time, that you won’t soon forget.

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