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Embrace of the Serpent (Foreign Film Review & Trailer)

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Review by John Delia

One of this year’s Foreign Film Oscar nominations, Embrace of the Serpent opens this weekend in several markets around the nation. Brilliantly shot in the jungles of Columbia, the movie is loosely based on the events from the journals of two explorers. Well-acted, photographed and directed the fictional story takes you on an adventure that must have been as dangerous making it as the real life drama from which it has been extracted.

The first scene opens with Theodor von Martius (Jan Bijvoet), a scientist, laying in a small canoe arriving at the shore of the Amazon River with his guide Manduca (Yauenku Miguee). Manduca comes from the Maloca Komelamong tribe who live in the region and has been taking Martius to medicine men or “shaman” throughout the area. They have come to meet with Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) one of the last members of the Cohjuano tribe who have grown yakruna a psychedelic medicinal plant. Matius is very sick and he was told to find Karamakate as he may know where his tribe lives. After some trepidation involving his dislike for white people, Karamakate agrees to travel with Martius up river to find his tribe he thought was extinct. They begin their trip.

Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador)

Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador)

Fast forward many years and find Evan (Brionne Davis) arriving at a small inlet on the Amazon River where he meets with now older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador). Evan is dying of a disease and has read the book written by Martius in search of the yakruna. Karamakate agrees to go with Evan in search of the plant that may even help his own forgetfulness. So begins a treacherous journey up the Amazon with danger at every turn.

Director Ciro Guerra filming a shot for Embrace of the Serpent

Director Ciro Guerra filming a shot for Embrace of the Serpent

Directed and written by Ciro Guerra, the script combines some truth with the fictional story. Loosely based on the journals of explorers Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes involving their travels along the Columbian Amazon, Guerra does a very good job of bringing the wildness and danger that the two may have faced. Filmed in black and white, the movie gives viewers a dark and dank Amazon that teems with endangerment.

His actors are very good, especially the natives that portray Manduca (Yauenku Miguee) and the older and younger Karamakate. Nilbio Torres portrays an ominous Karamakate who takes a dim view of wanting to help a white man find the mysterious plant. Seemingly very violent, Karamakate only changes his mind when he believes the story that some of his family members may still be alive. But even then when they get to the first village along the river he becomes a brooding man still skeptical of Martius.

Much later in the movie we find Karamakate, now portrayed by Antonio Bolívar Salvador, a mellower Amazon native who has developed something similar to psychedelia. He has a comical tone as if he has been living on Yakruna and it has taken over his mind. Still not too friendly with white men, yet he has a distinct addiction to what the scientist Evan wants.

The movie was filmed in the Columbian Amazon’s jungles of Vaupes that borders on the State of Amazonas in the country of Brazil. Still populated by indigenous peoples, the jungle has dangerous passages and thick vegetation. I’m sure the crews must have had a difficult time filming the movie. Most of the transportation in and out of the jungle would have been by boat and small aircraft. Shots of the scenes along the river used in depicting the film show how treacherous the production must have been during the seven weeks it took to make Embrace of the Serpent.

Embrace of the Serpent has not been rated by the MPAA, but contains violence, drug use and language. The film is presented in the following native languages with English subtitles; Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, and Latin.

FINAL ANALYSIS: A good film and worthy of the Oscar nomination that it received. (B)

Additional Film Information:
Cast: Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, Antonio Bolívar Salvador, Nilbio
Torres, and Yauenkü Miguee
Directed and Written by: Ciro Guerra
Genre: Adventure, Drama, History,
Foreign Film: Columbia, Venezuela, Argentina
Language: Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 2 hrs. 5 min.
Release Date: March 11, 2016
Distributed by: Oscilloscope Pictures
Release Formats: Black & White

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