EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT
The story of the relationship between Karamakate (Nilbio Torres younger, Antonio Bolivar, older) an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his people, and two scientific explorers who are searching the jungle 40 years apart - one in 1909 one in 1940s - for a sacred healing plant. (Based on a true story)
Review by Louise Keller:
An extraordinary journey through the Amazon jungle, this unique black and white film from Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra is both poetic and confronting as it explores indigenous cultures, traditions, dreams and the impact of colonisation. Visually stunning, the raw beauty of the landscape is breathtaking, yet the narrative involving two scientists and their search 40 years apart fails to embrace as it should.
Winner of 8 Colombian Oscars and other accolades including winner of Director's Fortnight at Cannes 2015, Embrace of the Serpent finds its origins from the journals of two European scientists; Guerra has moulded a narrative involving parallel journeys.
The river looks like a shimmering mirror as the long canoe approaches the shore, where Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), a young shaman with a bowl cut hairstyle and distinctive necklace squats. It is the early 20th century and Theo (Jan Bijvoet), a German explorer who has devoted his life to plants is desperately ill and is searching for the yakruna, the flower he believes can heal him. His indigenous guide Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) accompanies him. Much of the film revolves around the ever-changing relationship between Theo and Karamakate as they journey along the river and through the jungle - both searching for something vital. Theo searches for a cure to his illness; Karamakate searches for his lost tribe.
Like a road trip, there are stops along the way as they collect provisions. Each stop provides yet another clue into the local culture, including the horrific consequences of the rubber trade. There is a desperate man with one arm; orphaned children whipped by the Spanish priest at a mission; a delusional man who believes he is god...
Tracing Theo's steps 40 years later with the older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar Salvador), is Evans (Brionne Davis), an American explorer. This time, it is his lost memories that Karamakate seeks. All the performances have the stamp of authenticity as does the athletic physique and striking features of both Torres and Salvador.
The significance of the film's title is implied but never clearly stated. Shots of a jaguar and writhing serpents provide some clues, as does the serpentine nature of river that meanders through the dense forests of the Amazon. Embrace of the Serpent is clearly a work of passion and Guerra has created a rich work in which to tell his story. It plays a bit long and the way the two stories have been edited sometimes confuses, but overall is a unique work that dares to tread in unchartered territory.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The many awards and accolades (including an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language Film) together with positive reviews quoted on the marketing materials for this film lifted my expectations - perhaps too high. It's ambitions are also high, weaving together elements of diaries written some 40 years apart by two explorers seeking a unique plant with medicinal (and perhaps mystical) properties - and rubber.
The Colombian Amazonian jungle setting is shot in black and white (better described as grey), which serves two functions: it makes us focus on the story rather than the visual splendour, and secondly, it serves to ground the film in a historical past. I am not convinced either rationale is served to great effect. If anything, it's a counter productive distraction ... Filmmaker Ciro Guerra set out to celebrate this unknown, unseen part of the world, and in telling a story from the point of view of the indigenous peoples, helps redress the past cinematic failures to show them other than as primitive savages.
The structure is simple enough, as we join the two explorers in their different times without any fussy effects, just a simple cut to the first or second one-man expedition. The one element of continuity is the Amazonian shaman, Karamakate, played as a younger man by the striking Nilbio Torres and as the older man by Antonio Bolivar with a fascinating face. They both provide the film with a focus, the latter drawing our empathy when he agonises over his failing memory of important social and cultural matters. ... memories he slowly regains.
Playing the supporting role of Manduca, Miguel Ramos, is notable for both his appealing character (perhaps the only one in the film) and his performance as the right hand man to a sickly Theo (Jan Bijovet), as he searches for the Yakruna plant at the beginning of the 20th century. Four decades later, while the rest of the world is at war, noted Texan botanist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) went looking for rubber, vital for the Americans, but a cursed commodity for the Amazonians exploited by 'rubber barons'.
Clearly respectful of both the natural and human environment, Guerra has given us a glimpse of this world he so admires - but has not translated that respect into gripping and satisfying cinema.
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EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (M)
El abrazo de la serpiente
CAST: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Miguel Ramos, Nicolas Cancino, Luigi Sciamanna
PRODUCER: Cristina Gallego
DIRECTOR: Ciro Guerra
SCRIPT: Ciro Guerra, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal (diaries by Theodor Koch-Grunberg, Richard Evan Schultes)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: David Gallego
EDITOR: Etienne Boussa
MUSIC: Nascuy Linares
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Angelica Perea
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 28, 2016