This movie from Colombia was an Oscar nominee last year for best foreign language film – a Conradian jungle dream, or nightmare, shot in searing, scorching monochrome. It has something of Herzog’s Aguirre or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a drama about the west’s obsession with the dark interior and with the money to be made for adventurers who are unafraid of the danger, and the equally intoxicating promise of new knowledge frontiers.
It is based on the real journals of two 20th-century explorers, Theodor Koch-Grünberg and later Richard Evans Schultes. Both travelled through the Colombian Amazon searching for the medicinal and psychedelic yakruna plant, a scientific interest compromised by the west’s exploitative greed for the rubber to be extracted there. The film recounts the initial adventure of Theodor (Jan Bijvoet), who, desperately sick, asks for help from the indigenous tribesman and shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres). But it interleaves this story with one happening decades later: we see an American, Evan (Brionne Davis) in the jungle, effectively on Theodor’s trail, and he encounters Karamakate, much older, careworn, with a failing memory – played by Antonio Bolívar Salvador.
In the “early” section, an encounter with a Christian evangelist mission ends in disaster, and in the “later” section we see how this community has degenerated into a bizarre cult. A truly Kurtzian experience. The film is flawed, just slightly, by a touch of overt sci-fi fantasy at the end, but what a gripping and absorbing piece of work.
Review by Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian