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Embrace of the Serpent” dissects the dissonance between the modern and the primitive — and the doomed drive to connect the two — with such a powerful sense of anguish that it’s unsettling, to say the least.

At the heart of the film we find a shaman named Karamakate, played by Nilbio Torres as a young man, and by Antonio Bolivar as old. Karamakate lives by himself in some ultra-remote corner of the Amazon, since his tribe has been wiped out by white rubber barons.

One day a canoe approaches the young Karamakate carrying two people. One is a German anthropologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is deathly ill. The other is his loyal traveling companion, a one-time Amazonian slave named Manduca (Yauenku Migue).

Manduca has heard Karamakate — who is a gorgeous creature, the embodiment of jungle spirit — is a great healer. Will he help the ailing Theo? At first Karamakate turns away, wanting nothing to do with a white man. Eventually he decides to help, after Theo tells him he knows where other survivors from his tribe live. So the three set off on a quest for a permanent cure and to find Karamakate’s tribe mates.

Flash forward a few decades and an aged Karamakate is approached by another white man in a canoe, Evan (Brionne Davis). A botanist, Evan has been inspired by Theo’s published diaries to seek out Karamakate and ask him to help find the miraculous healing plant Karamakate promised would cure Theo.

This older Karamakate is a ball of confusion, unsure of who he is, what he’s done and where the plant might be. But, as he sets off on another quest with Evan, his memories — and his reservations about white men —— return.

The film moves back and forth between the two quests, canoes sliding up the Amazon in parallel. Shot in stunningly effective black-and-white, which gives it an old-time documentary look, it nevertheless captures the grandeur of the rain forest and the earthiness of Karamakate’s world. Sprirtuality is central to that world, and Karamakate has all sorts of mind-bending herbs at his disposal, as well as a highly structured philosophy of life.

The clash between cultures comes to a head late in the film when Evan and Karamakate become prisoners at a mission-turned messianic cult that the young Karamakate and Theo visited years earlier. It is the worst of both worlds, which is saying something.

Directed and co-written by Ciro Guerra, and inspired by the diary of the real-life Theo, “Embrace of the Serpent” teems with passion about invasive culture, about knowledge and transcendence, about brute, inescapable reality, about man’s need to push forward and man’s need to hold strong. It is gripping, challenging, engrossing stuff, beginning to end. Seriously, what a film.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.

‘Embrace of the Serpent’

GRADE: A

Not rated

Running time: 125 minutes

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