Synopsis: The story of the relationship between Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his people, and two scientists who work together over the course of 40 years to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant.
Release Date: March 11,2016 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Adventure, Drama
The Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards had a slew of quality nominees. FilmFracture has already covered Denmark’s A War, France’s Mustang, Jordan’s Theeb, and the eventual (very deserving) winner, Hungary’s Son of Saul. Well, now we’re finally getting around to an American release of the last nominated film in the category – from Colombia, Embrace of the Serpent.
Embrace of the Serpent is about two different excursions into the Amazon, forty years apart, both looking for the same mythical plant. It begins with a man named Theo (Jan Bijvoet from Borgman) meeting up with a shaman named Karamakate (indigenous actor Nilbio Torres) who, in exchange for being led to a lost tribe of his people, agrees to help Theo look for the elusive Yakruna plant, a plant which reportedly has psychedelic healing properties. Flash forward to another explorer named Evan (Avenged‘s Brionne Davis) who, working from Theo’s notes from the older expedition, locates Karamakate (this time played by an older indigenous actor named Antonio Bolivar) and asks him to take him on the same journey as Theo, hoping to find the plant himself.
Director Ciro Guerra (The Wind Journeys) wrote the screenplay for Embrace of the Serpent with Jacques Toulemonde (Anna), taking inspiration from the diaries of explorers Thoedor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes. It’s hard to say how much of the movie is fact and how much is fiction, but there is a definite air of realism to the film that seems to be backed up by history. One of the most memorable scenes involves Theo and the younger Karamakate encountering a slave on a rubber plantation who, when his rubber plant collection buckets are turned over and their contents emptied, begs the men to kill him so his masters don’t torture him. The effect of the rubber boom on the indigenous Amazon population is well documented, and while this exchange may not have actually happened in real life, it certainly sounds plausible when the facts of history are taken into account.
Whether its events are true or not, Embrace of the Serpent has flaws in its narrative. The two timelines gimmick is intriguing, but the film flips between them too awkwardly for it to be compelling – by the time the plot gets back to Evan’s excursion, so much time has been spent on Theo’s adventure that the audience is no longer invested in the other. The story is slow and dull, and while the movie looks great, it’s long and tough to follow, which makes it tough to swallow. Add in the art-school-dropout climactic ending, and the movie just ends up disappointing.
Ciro Guerra should be commended for his commitment to authenticity, both by choosing to shoot on location and by using indigenous natives as actors in the film. Embrace of the Serpent really does feel like it takes the viewer on a trip down the Amazon River. It just seems as if it may have made a better pure documentary instead of a speculative docudrama.
Embrace of the Serpent was shot on location in the Amazonic Región of Vaupés, Guainía in Colombia by cinematographer David Gallego (Violencia, Cecilia). The lush forests and raging rivers make for a spectacular backdrop for the film. The movie was shot in striking black & white, which is a curious choice considering how green and beautiful the area probably is, but it somehow works for the movie, giving it an almost sepia-toned, old-fashioned feel to it that is particularly effective during Theo’s older expedition scenes. The film is full of long, sweeping shots in which the camera follows and circles around the action, making sure to show the viewer not only the characters in the scene, but their surroundings as well, sharply focusing on every leaf on every tree, every crack in every rock wall, every reflection in every river. Gallego’s camera also perfectly captures the raw and unhindered look of the tribespeople, making the film look a bit like a National Geographic special. From a photographic standpoint, Embrace of the Serpent is a highly artistic nature film. Whether that is the intention or not is irrelevant, because that’s how it looks.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Ciro Guerra
- Producer(s): Cristina Gallego
- Screenwriter(s): Ciro GuerraJacques Toulemonde VidalTheodor Koch-Grunberg
- Story: Richard Evans Schultes
- Cast: Nilbio Torres (Young Karamakate)Jan Bijvoet (Theo)Antonio Bolivar (Old Karamakate) Brionne Davis (Evan)Yauenkü Migue (Manduca)Nicolás Cancino (Anizetto)Luigi Sciamanna (Priest Gaspar)
- Editor(s): Etienne Boussac
- Cinematographer: David Gallego
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer: Catherine Rodríguez
- Casting Director(s): Gustavo Moyano
- Music Score: Nascuy Linares
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: ColombiaVenezuela