There are a myriad of great movies recognized for Academy Award nominations this year and a number of very close call predictions in multiple categories but to me nothing shows this more than the Best Foreign picks. The obvious front runner is Son of Saul, a harrowing perspective movie about one man during the Holocaust but also in the race is Mustang, a feminine oppression versus power film from Turkey by way of France that is very close to many issues faced across the world today. Already there is two very worthy winners but then you add in the Jordanian survival film Theeb that is an incredible feat for a first time writer and director as well as it’s young star. Now I have to add Embrace of the Serpent to that pile of incredible films as it is also a strong contender for the award.
The betting odds will always come down to the Hungarian Son of Saul to leave with the golden boy but an amazing film like Embrace of the Serpent just getting recognized is a great accomplishment itself. Firstly, it’s the first film out of Columbia to be nominated and secondly it’s a very down to nature feeling black and white film that has moments of extreme etherealness mixed with true elements that are translated to the screen. The ambitious guerilla style shooting of this film give it a quality that is very reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God or Cobra Verde, minus the insane stylings of Klaus Kinski. Even with these comparisons, Embrace of the Serpent has so much that makes it stand out on it’s own.
The film opens in 1909 with a witch doctor and the last of his tribe, Karamakate, standing on the shoreline of the Amazon river as a boat slowly makes his way to him. In the boat is Manduca, a native to the area who now serves as a local Amazon assistant to a scientist, Theo who lies in the boat, dying. Manduca begs Karamakate to heal Theo in order for the two to locate a sacred healing plant hidden somewhere in the jungle. At first the lone tribesman refuses to help a white man but then reluctantly reneges on his first thoughts and agrees to lead them down the river.
Along the way the trio come across a separate tribe living deep within the jungle, away from any western knowledge of societal advancements. Fascinated by this, Theo’s only wish is for all of this to be preserved and unsullied, proving the type of scientist he is, more of an omnipotent observer than one to enact a change. This is pushed when a member of the tribe steals his compass and is unwilling to give it up. Theo is upset only because he wanted the tribe to stay the way it was before he arrived, in a manner of speaking, stifling the people of change and development.
Also playing alongside this is the journey of Evan, a scientist in 1940, who, with the help of a mentally ailing and older Karamakate, begins the same journey that Theo went on before him. It is through this that we learn Theo’s fate and the differences between the objectives of the two scientist’s endgame is very apparent. Where Theo was a more down to earth thinker Evan seems to be more interested and set on the gain of the expedition, whether it be economically, globally or even personally. This is most obvious when the two come across a crop of rubber trees. Evan is dead set on bringing it back to the world to help with the war effort. This I thought really showed the changing of the times in it’s ideals.
The most interesting thing for me about this film is the journey the two separate scientists take and the life altering results it has on their local guide and, at times, savior Karamakate in his trust of others or his connection to whatever he has left of his own people. We see these turn him destructively in his youth and a more sadly remorseful aging loner looking for a special sort of redemption that is, I think, the real focus of this film.
Director Ciro Guerra also gives an interesting look at religion through the different groups that our main characters come across. With the first tribe, they are very spiritual in their approach to nature which is the focus of their worship practices. The group in 1909 then come across a missionary who is teaching a group of native children the ways of Catholic worship, with some damning results. Showing the good and ugly sides of these are compelling but become more so when the come across a group in 1940 run by “The Messiah”, a self proclaimed leader uses this title as a hold over his people in a bastardized amalgamation of the two beliefs. The results are murderous and astounding to both our lead scientist and the audience.
The worst thing that could possibly happen with a film like Embrace of the Seent is that no one would go see it. Luckily, an Oscar nomination at least ensures that the film will be on many people’s radars once they get a slight glimpse of it at the televised awards show, if not as soon as the nominations were made in January. I know stalwart fans of the before mentioned Werner Herzog will definitely eat up a deeply naturalistic film like this and will be waiting for what a filmmaker like Guerra will piece together next, since this film took him over five years. I really think this film is worth an in depth cinephiles viewing and give it a four out of five.