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Embrace of the Serpent - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
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Embrace of the Serpent
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Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: A
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A



Embrace of the Serpent is the kind of movie that may be a bit too cerebral for some people's tastes. I'm not going to lie, there were elements of it that flew over my head. Some parts of it, particularly the few seconds of actual color cinematography, and the only time it leaves the Amazon, seem a little like Colombia's answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Except this movie, instead of looking to the future, remains firmly entrenched in the past. In so doing, of course, it forces us to look at our present.

This is a foreign film, from Colombia, but its themes are unusually broad. Colonialism is colonialism no matter how you look at it. The story features two scientists, visiting the same Amazonian shaman forty years apart, and they are the only two main characters in the film who are white. They both bear a large burden of representing all that Western civilization did to decimate the native cultures of the entire Western hemisphere.

This movie just takes a micro look at it, and it happens to be in South America. Still, when the young Karamakate says, "You're nothing but a white," it resonates. Karamakate is the last of his people, persuaded by an ailing explorer (Jan Bijvoet) and his largely Westernized aide (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) to guide them to a place believed to have the plant needed to cure his sickness. Karamakate is only persuaded when he is told the place has more of the people he believes to have been exterminated. He is otherwise persistently distrustful, and who can blame him?

Writer-director Ciro Guerra jumps back and forth between this time frame and forty years later, when Karamakate as an old man (Antonio Bolivar) is traveling with another young scientist (Brionne Davis), who is trying to find the mythical plant described in the earlier explorer's diaries.

There are always ulterior motives. The story places more emphasis on the journey with Karamakate as a younger man than on the later one, but both are essential. The broader story arc, though, is less important than the series of vignettes the movie presents. In that way, Embrace of the Serpent is much less like a Stanley Kubick film than one by Terrence Malick. These are both weak comparisons; Guerra presents a singular vision with this film, which lingers in the memory long after the experience is done. Certain details are hard to shake. A group of natives insists on keeping the earlier scientist's compass, which he takes issue with because he says it will break them of their generations of experience navigating based on the stars. Karamakate replies, "You cannot forbid them to learn." They both have valid points.

In a bizarre sequence, the older Karamakate and his American explorer come upon the ruins of an old missionary outpost, where now a white man is revered by locals as the Messiah. This might seem hokey and out of place if not for the fact that it was based on an actual event. In fact the entire film is loosely based on actual diaries by two difference scientists visiting the Amazon in the early 20th century.

Nearly the entire film is shot in black and white. There's an interlude of maybe two or three minutes near the end where this changes, but none of the color is in the stunning natural scenery of the Amazon. I could never speak for the director or cinematographer, but I can say this of its effectiveness: had the movie been shot in color, a lot more time would have been spent focused on the stunning natural beauty. Stripping the Amazon of all its lush greenery forces us as the viewer to narrow in on the humans. A story about what we're doing to the rain forest would be worthwhile, but that's not what this is. This is about the violent eradication of culture.

Embrace of the Serpent never has to get too graphic to insinuate or remind us of the inhumane and horrific violence that came with all of this. Karamakate speaks more than once of how white people only bring darkness and death with them. In a fairly disturbing scene, the travelers come upon a local with one arm missing, who begs to be killed. There is the strong temptation to do as he asks: "They'll torture him to death." There are many illusions to the rubber barons who do as they please with callous indifference. We never actually see them and we don't need to. Instead, we see their effects on the natives.

This movie is far too subtle to be heavy-handed. It doesn't take much to reach a thoughtful viewer, even if some of it is difficult to process. Not enough people will see it, even though it's a story that needs telling. Underneath the horrific historical trappings, it's still a compelling story, about the relationship between a man and those who may be decent at heart but nevertheless represent those who oppress him.

Nilbio Torres represents the futile resistance of colonial history in EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT.


Overall: A-
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