In the early 20th Century, German scientist Theodor Koch-Grunberg searches for a rare plant in the Amazon. A few decades later, American scientist Richard Evans Schultes embarks on the same quest. The two men are united by their shared guide, an Amazonian shaman Karamakate, the last of his tribe.
The basic story sounds like something Werner Herzog could have made back in the seventies. Ambitious men tested in the unforgiving jungle. Koch-Grunberg (played by the skeletal Jan Bijvoet) certainly resembles the type of mad men one would see in a Herzog film. However, director and co-writer Ciro Guerra has does something other than ape Herzog. His film is told unquestionably from a native perspective.
As a young man, Karamakate watches foreigners not with curiosity or awe but with judgment. He is well familiar with their culture, their religion, and their language. When older, he has grown forgetful but retains his status as the film's protagonist. The decision to divide the film into two parallel narratives emphasizes the primacy of the one constant character.
Most anyone with at least a meager amount of liberal arts education should already be familiar with the anti-colonial messages contained in the film. The quest deliberately has the characters pass by examples of the white man's exploitation of the Amazon, from the rubber barons to the missionaries. Yet, Karamakate's perspective makes it fresh as well as more nuanced.
It would have been easy to cast either of the scientists as white saviors, here to protect the natives from the other whites. Both of them seem to think of themselves that way. Instead, Karamakate - and, by extension, the film - is able to directly call out the foreigners' attempts to keep those tribal cultures "pure" as patronizing even while lamenting their loss.
It is that sense of loss that forms the heart of the film, one made manifest in the character of Karamakate, through both his righteous anger as a young man and his reflective nature when older. The trancelike black-and-white cinematography creates the sensation of a half-forgotten dream. You mourn the splendor that you can no longer recall. The final address of the film, delivered by Karamakate to both the American and to the audience, beseeches you to remember these stories - these people, these cultures - to not let them fade from history.