Saturday, February 20, 2016

Review: Embrace of the Serpent

Image courtesy of Oscilloscope. 
Ciro Guerra's visually rich and mystically elegiac Oscar nominee "Embrace of the Serpent" has the feel of a long lost Werner Herzog picture from the days when that great German director spent his time getting lost in the jungle. That's obviously a compliment and Guerra, who was unbeknownst to me despite this being his third feature, is clearly a filmmaker to watch.

Set during two undisclosed times in the 20th century - my guess would be the very early 1900s and then approximately 40 years after that - the film follows the story of Karamakate (the younger version played by Nilbio Torres and the older by Antonio Bolivar), an Amazonian shaman who is the last of his tribe. He first meets Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), a German whom he reluctantly agrees to take through the Colombian wilds to find the fabled yakruna, a healing flower that grows on rubber plants, after Koch-Grunberg catches malaria.

In the later story, the older Karamakate meets American botanist and psychedelic researcher Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), who is also seeking the yakruna plant, but whom Karamakate believes has come to the jungle for its rubber plants. An earlier scene in the film depicts Koch-Grunberg, his fellow researcher and Karamakate fleeing as Colombians raid the jungle and shoot at the natives in an attempt to secure rubber, so the shaman has reason to believe that white men dropping by his natural habitat tends to be for nefarious purposes.

Along the way, Guerra's film heads down some roads previously traveled in some of cinema's great jungle movies, including a scene where the older Karamakate and Schultes stumble upon an encampment, where Koch-Grunberg and the Amazonian had previously visited in the earlier narrative and freed some young boys from a disciplinarian priest, to find some sort of insane church where a man pretending to be Jesus Christ has fooled the locals into believing he's the son of God. The bodies crucified on trees and the overall madness of the sequence brought to mind "Apocalypse Now." Other sequences in the picture recall Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" or "Aguirre: The Wrath of God."

One of the film's culminating moments - during which Karamakate comes to believe that his mission is to educate Schultes - involves the shaman feeding the westerner some yakruna, which leads to a psychedelic vision that feels like something out of the finale of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Even when we're not sure where exactly "Embrace of the Serpent" is taking us narratively - or, hell, even thematically - it's a movie filled with dazzling, unforgettable imagery.

If Guerra's film doesn't quite compare to some of the aforementioned classics by Herzog and Coppola, it's still a unique cinematic experience. It's slowly paced, but hypnotic, and leisurely in terms of storytelling and theme - and yet, you still feel as if you've witnessed a picture with its share of profound moments by a director with obvious filmmaking capability. For moviegoers who'd consider themselves adventurous, "Embrace" comes highly recommended.

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