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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Embrace of the Serpent

The fifth and last nominee for 2015's Best Foreign Language Oscar is Embrace of the Serpent, a Colombian film helmed by Ciro Guerra. It is an intriguing and strangely beautiful film, and I think I would voted for it.

The film tells two parallel stories in the Amazon: in 1909, an German ethnographer (Jan Bijvoet) and his guide seek out a shaman (Nilbio Torres) to find a healing plant. Some thirty years later, that same shaman, now played by Antonio Bolivar, guides an American botanist (Brionne Davis) to find that very same plant.

Each story takes on the template of the odyssey, as the parties move down river, encountering experiences. Both stop at a mission, which in 1909 is a Catholic orphanage run by an overzealous priest, while in 1940 it is in ruins, ruled over by a white man, a self-proclaimed messiah.

Throughout the film the tensions between the primitive Indians of the area versus the colonizing, rubber-hunting white man are palpable. The early group finds a worker for the rubber plantation, missing one arm and facially disfigured, frantically scooping liquid rubber into a bucket. When the guide, who bears scars from rubber bosses, wants to shoot him, the worker asks for death. The young shaman distrusts the whites, as he well should.

The older shaman, the last of his kind, describes himself as a shell of a man, telling the American he doesn't remember anything. But he still practices the old ways, and relies on ingesting hallucinogenics to make him dream. "Be a vagabond of dreams," he tells the American (both white men have trouble dreaming), which would have been a great alternative title, as well as sound advice, I think.

Some of the "being close to nature" stuff is old hat at this point--animals and plants are the gods that the Indians worship, especially the anaconda and the jaguar--but Guerra tells the story in very interesting ways. The film is in black and white, which one would think would be wrong, given that the jungle is so colorful, but it works, giving the film the appearance of something antique and lost.

I'm not sure about the ending--the film doesn't so much resolve itself but just stop, indicating the money might have run out. But on the whole Embrace of the Serpent is a fine picture, especially for those interested in the Indians of the Amazon.

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