Embrace of the Serpent
Directed by Ciro Guerra
The epic story of the first contact, encounter, approach, betrayal and, eventually, life-transcending friendship, between Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman, last survivor of his people, and two scientists that, over the course of 40 years, travel through the Amazon in search of a sacred plant that can heal them. Inspired by the journals of the first explorers of the Colombian Amazon, Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes.
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★★★★ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
From Francis Ford Coppola to Werner Herzog, maverick filmmakers have always been entranced by the madness of the jungle. Colombian director Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent doesn't shy away from the violence of Apocalypse Now or the delirium of Fitzcarraldo, but his trippy dive into the dark heart of his homeland is ultimately like nothing you've seen before.
In 1909, sick and scraggly Dutch explorer Theodor von Martius (Borgman star Jan Bijvoet) travels up the Amazon river in search of the rare yakruna leaf that can supposedly cure his illness. Although he's aided by a native companion who paddles him downstream, Von Martius knows that only one man can help him find what he's after: Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), a distrusting Cohiuano shaman who's the last of his tribe. Every so often, the film jumps 40 years into the future to join a rugged American named Evan (Brionne Davis) as he enlists an older Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar) to retrace his steps on a hunt for the same plant — snaking together these parallel journeys into a mesmeric call and response.
★★★★★ review by Alice Bishop on Letterboxd
As a story that rejects the boundaries set by our knowledge and experience in the First World, Embrace of the Serpent is an innately exotic and spiritual tale captured within the landscape of a repugnant part of history. While many of the movie’s gorgeous black-and-white shots and on-location rainforest mixes are crucial in creating an atmosphere, it’s the fascinating parallel stories that turn Ciro Guerra’s meditative movie into an account that’s more than just skin deep.
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★★★★ review by Arsaib Gilbert on Letterboxd
Recalling such films as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s striking third feature, Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente), tracks a pair of mythical, quasi-ethnographic journeys into the heart of the Amazon to explore and comment on the destructive powers of colonialism. It is loosely inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers: German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Harvard-educated American biologist Richard Evans Schultes. In the film, the two scientists travel, separately, through the Colombian Amazon during the early twentieth century to document the indigenous cultures in general and to look for a rare and sacred healing plant called “yakruna” (fictional) in particular. Unlike most thematically similar efforts, it is wholly embracing of the indigenous perspective.
★★★★ review by Wesley R. Ball on Letterboxd
Colombia's Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film of 2015, Embrace of the Serpent is a mesmerizing homage to classic adventure films of the 1940's and 50's like The African Queen and Africa Screams. The plot sways back and forth between a botanist's expedition to find a fabled plant and the tale of the explorer who found it years before. Based on the diaries of two real-life explorers who inspired the film, Embrace of the Serpent is rife with thematic undertones from Werner Herzog. A similar stylistic eye for nature's beauty can be found here, and the cinematography is stunning in a similar fashion.
Director Ciro Guerra takes us on a spellbinding journey through the winding Amazon river, and with a skeleton crew and minimal budget, tells a fascinating tale of honor, deception, and ultimately greed. There is a fascinating clash of worlds that takes place throughout the story, the primitive nature of the tribal amazonians is put under the microscope for a time, but I feel that Guerra didn't take this opportunistic story to its fullest potential. Instead, he chooses to strictly focus on the journey at hand, very rarely taking a chance to examine the complications between two very different people. Even so, it doesn't bother me to a large extent, I loved that this ended more as a tribute to classic deep Africa adventure films, with some subtle psychological undertones in the plot. What we get is a truly unique experience that can only be described as supremely palpable.
Unlike other adventure films, Embrace of the Serpent made me feel like I was dirty. It made me feel like I was sweating. Like I had been traversing the South American jungles for weeks on end. The gorgeous black and white cinematography heralds back to the old days of cinematic adventures, but that didn't stop the film from pulling me in and making me feel like I was actually part of the action. The amount of immersion that this film put on me as I was watching was outstanding to me, and Ciro Guerra truly achieves a sort of transcendence of cinema that I've never felt before. The intense suspense rushed within me when the right moments came, as if I was right in the middle, facing the hostile natives and trials our characters face. For a film to simultaneously captivate a classic cinematic adventure feeling while also making the audience feel as if they are actually there with the other characters is a genuinely unique achievement that I've never had the pleasure of experiencing before today. I would recommend this film on the sheer immersion factor alone, despite having so many other fantastic qualities about it (the most memorable to me being the jaw dropping black and white).
Son of Saul undoubtedly earned its Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year. But if there had been a runner up I needed to choose, Embrace of the Serpent would have certainly been my first choice. The film has a seamless flow between two eras to tell a story and its history, shown through some fantastic cinematography; and gives a classic 1940's adventure film feeling to its atmosphere. The film provides a truly unique sensory experience that makes you feel as if you're actually there with the characters, getting physically dirty and hot in the humid African jungle. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully shot films of 2015, and a stellar love letter to adventure films of old, unlike anything you've ever seen before.
★★★★★ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd
We are taken through time and space during two hours in the heart of the Amazon, transported from our own world and immersed into a cultural viewpoint rarely seen or understood elsewhere. Ciro Guerra magically achieves that, viewing the West and its destructive tendencies through the eyes of a man who has seen his heritage corrupted by colonial invaders.
Basing the story on the journals of European explorers who visited unseen tribes in the 20th century, we move seamlessly between timelines, as two scientists seek the help of the same native man to lead them toward a rare and sacred plant. Karamakate is representative of the mysterious spirituality that appears to layer every tree, rock, animal and waterway around them. Just as he sees the two explorers as one man, visiting him as a younger and older warrior, we view a similar duality within himself.
There is an immense level of respect given to the jungle and the tribes that live within it by Guerra and that time given to understanding this way of life shifts us into what feels like another world entirely. Shooting on 35mm stock in black and white could not have been easy at all in such an unforgiving environment but it creates a powerful mysticism that would not have been possible digitally, or in colour.
This is an instinctive and philosophical journey of self-discovery both for the characters and those that can connect with it. The story may feel small and simple yet we are taken through the expanse of the universe to question our own significance and position within it. Not many films can offer such a transformative experience and Embrace of the Serpent is one that you will find hard to escape in your dreams.
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