BOGOTÁ, Colombia — In 1979 the German director Werner Herzog set out into the Peruvian Amazon to begin filming “Fitzcarraldo,” the quixotic tale of an Irish rubber baron’s quest to build an opera house in the jungle.
What came next was one of the most painful ordeals in filmmaking. A crew member was bitten by a deadly snake and wound up amputating his own foot. Illnesses ensued. The Aguaruna Indians burned down Mr. Herzog’s set in a dispute with him over their land.
Nearly four decades later, the Colombian director Ciro Guerra, now 35, journeyed into the Amazon with a different approach. He arrived in the jungle with an anthropologist. The men explained the project to a shaman, who spent the night alone in the jungle, where, in Mr. Guerra’s words, the healer carefully “explained the project to the forest.”
What some might have called superstition, Mr. Guerra simply sees as the cost of doing business in the Amazon.
accidents, anything can take place — the indigenous people made that very clear to us,” he said on a recent night as he discussed the making of his film, “Embrace of the Serpent.”
“This was not a production that could have entered into combat with the forest.”
The two-hour adventure film, shot in black and white, drew high praise at the Cannes Film Festival, along with an Academy Award nomination for best foreign-language film. (It opens in the United States on Wednesday.) It was Colombia’s first Oscar nomination, and though the film faces long odds against perceived front-runners from Hungary (“Son of Saul”) and France (“Mustang”), Mr. Guerra is something of a national hero in a country eager for attention unrelated to its drug lords and guerrilla fighters.
“There’s a huge flood of intellectual capital flourishing, now that theviolence is abating in Colombia, and this film is a big part of that,” saidWade Davis, an anthropologist and a protégé of Richard Evans Schultes, one of two ethnographers the film is loosely based on.
Few filmmakers have dared to shoot in the Amazon, and those who have done so usually hewed to the theme of the white man who succumbs to madness in the jungle.
Separate 20th-century journeys by two Westerners — Schultes and the social scientist Theodor Koch-Grünberg, who are here depicted in a hunt for a rare Amazonian plant — are the basis of Mr. Guerra’s film. Their stories are told through the eyes of a skeptical native guide named Karamakate, who is searching for his tribe after a massacre and watches as his culture is decimated by Western invaders.
Most of the film’s actors, including Nilbio Torres, who plays Karamakate as a young man, are members of the Cubeo and Wanano, tribes that mostly live in small towns in southern Colombia, along the Brazilian border, and “have a foot in both their world and ours,” Mr. Guerra said. Only one had acted before; Spanish was often their second language, if not their third.
Mr. Guerra spent three months training the cast in the art of performance, a process that he said was easier than he imagined because of the storytelling traditions of the tribe and their ability to listen. The script was written in Spanish, then translated — sometimes partly rewritten — by the actors into their own languages, nine in all.
Sometimes cultures meet gently in this film, as when Karamakate listens to Haydn’s “The Creation” oratorio, played quietly in the jungle on a portable phonograph. It’s a nod to “Fitzcarraldo,” in which the rubber baron blasts opera arias into the jungle as his boat spins out of control.
But mostly the cultures clash, a situation that becomes most real when Koch-Grünberg and Karamakate stumble across a group of children orphaned in an earlier massacre by rubber merchants. They are led by an aging monk, who beats Roman Catholicism into them with a whip and forbids their “demonic languages,” forcing them to speak Spanish.
Forty years later, when an older Karamakate returns, the scene is apocalyptic. A crucified body hangs from a tree. Catholicism and Spanish are gone, replaced by evangelical Christianity and Portuguese. The leader of these natives is another white man, who claims to be the messiah and talks of ordering his flock to commit mass suicide.
Mr. Guerra said that character and those scenes are based on the history of a 19th-century zealot named Anizetto, whose thousands of followers were put down by the Brazilian military.
“It’s a phenomenon that has repeated itself many times there,” the director said. “The Amazon is a spiritual place. People there are deeply spiritual. And when someone strips away the indigenous spirituality that’s already there, it creates a vacuum that gets filled with fundamentalism and insanity.”
Mr. Guerra said he thought the film would be his first and last set in the Amazon.
Mr. Herzog, who returned to the jungle for a 1999 documentary, “My Best Fiend” (a reference to the actor Klaus Kinski), that recounted his ordeal making “Fitzcarraldo” and other films, now plays down the difficulties. In an email, he wrote: “No one should make a big deal about filming in the Amazon, it’s just another forest.”
Mr. Guerra has a different take.
He spoke of the Cerros de Mavicure, three stone mounds that make up part of an old geological formation called the Guayana Shield in southeastern Colombia. In the film’s final scene, Schultes and Karamakate climb the mounds and find the flowering plant they’ve been searching for. The Amazon forest stretches far into the distance.
“I see it as a place that is charged with power,” Mr. Guerra said.