Movie Review: EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina 2015) ***

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embrace_of_the_serpent.jpgBest Foreign Language Film of the Year

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina 2015) ***
Directed by Ciro Guerra

Review by Gilbert Seah

Touted as the first Colombian film to be nominated for the best Foreign Film Oscar, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT might just be the sleeper hit if voters for MUSTANG and SON OF SAUL cancel each other out.

The Colombian film plays like an a weird combination of art-house primitive feature. The film is set in the early 1900s, centring on a young shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) in the Colombian Amazon. He is reluctantly hired to help a sick German explorer, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his local guide (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) search for a rare healing plant. Flash forward a decade or so later when the same shaman (each played by a different actor, Antonio Bolivar) takes an American to search for the same plant.

Unfortunately, the film’s uncomfortable intercutting between the two twin stories makes little sense and spoils the momentum built in each segment before a switch. It would be better to tell the two tales in two parts one after another. Both stories are equally interesting.
The villain of the film and hero appears to be the white man. But director Guerra also shows the pompous native shaman as one that could learn a lesson or two. In short, the native and white man could do best to learn from each other, one of the messages hidden in the story. But the priest that beats up the native children for nonsensical sins is quite the shock to take in. Religion and colonization is treated as totally evil in Guerra’s film.

The film is shot in black and white, which enhances the images. The scenes of the boat gliding down the rivers of the Amazon are breath-taking.

But the slow pace of Guerra’s film and lack of narrative might be hard to take for some, despite the rare see images of the Colombian jungle.

It is revealed in the end credits that it is from the diaries of the two German and American explorers that the world got to learn about these Amazon tribes. And Guerra’s heartfelt film (must be his labour of love) will extend the knowledge to the world as well.



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