Monday, March 14, 2016


Cultures collide on the Amazon in haunting 'Embrace of the Serpent'

The journey is definitely the destination in Embrace of the Serpent, a haunting meditation on culture, colonialism, and loss which this year became the first Colombian film to be nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar. Shot in captivating black-and-white, on location in the remote jungles on the banks of the Amazon River, it's an absorbing piece of filmmaking with the power of myth in every frame.

The third film from Colombian director Ciro Guerra, Embrace Of The Serpent is inspired by the published journals of two real-life scientists who visited the Amazon at separate times: Theodor Koch-Grunberg came out from Germany at the turn of the 20th Century, followed by American Richard Evans Schultes some forty years later. Each man recorded what he found in words and drawings, which journals have become the only documented evidence we have left of several indigenous Amazonian cultures that have long since vanished.

Filmmaker Guerra combines these two stories by inventing a character both expeditions have in common: the shaman, Karamakate (the wonderful Nilbio Torres). A young man when Grunberg arrives in 1909, Karamakate is the last of his people, after Europeans destroyed his village in their insatiable lust to harvest rubber from the region. An older, crankier Karamakate is no more impressed with "the whites" when ethnobiologist Schultes appears during World War II, following the course described in Grunberg's book.

In both cases, the shaman reluctantly agrees to guide the travelers along the river. Through his eyes, we see the often devastating disruptions of tribal culture in his lifetime alone, before, during, and after exposure to the outsiders. And yet, Karamakate accompanies each explorer on his mission, hoping to persuade the white men to see, and to "listen," as the journey continues along the serpentine twists and turns of the Amazon into each man's private heart of darkness.

The movie too glides elegantly in and out of its dual time frames as the parallel stories unspool. Guerra's dreamlike pacing and sensuous imagery are often enthralling, and the grandeur of the natural world that Guerra captures so well make this a journey worth taking. (Read more in this week's Good Times)

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