Embrace of the Serpent: Colombia’s Oscar Nominated Film, a Meditation on the Ravages of Colonialism

embrace_of_the_serpent_posterColombian director Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent was one of the five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film, representing his country for the first time in the Oscars.

At once blistering and poetic, the ravages of colonialism cast a dark shadow over the South American landscape in Embrace of the Serpent, the first film made in the Amazonian rain forest in over 30 years.

Thought-provoking, but decidedly unpretentious,  Embrace of the Serpent is a fanatically detailed film, which revolves around a riveting trip down the ancient river.  In theme, but not in visuals or tone, Embrace of the Serpent recalls such seminal films as Coppola’s Apocalypse, Now! and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God, as well as other ambitious but lesser films, such as The Mission.

Shot in stunningly attentive black-and-white, this starkly visionary film centers on Karamakate (portrayed in various life stages by Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar Salvado), an Amazonian shaman, who claims to be the last survivor of his people, the Cohiuanos.

The other main characters are the two white scientists, the German ethnographer Theodor Koch -Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), accompanied by a local guide, and years later, Manduca, the American botanist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), who over the course of 40 years build a friendship with Karamakate.

embrace_of_the_serpent_6The film was inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers (Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes), who traveled through the Colombian Amazon during the last century in search of the sacred and psychedelic Yakruna plant.

Creating sort of an otherworldly mood, Embrace of the Serpent is a elegiac meditation, digging so deep into its subject that it eventually burrows out the other side, reclaiming the wilderness as a place of lost memories.

The tale charts the poisonous effects of colonialism on indigenous populations and their ecosystems, with an unusually invigorating perspective.

embrace_of_the_serpent_5Guerra’s reimagining of the lives of lost peoples is always compelling, despite many languorous images of the river and jungles.  Though not as great as Herzog’s film, or as complex as Coppola’s, it nevertheless casts a spell of its own as an excoriating indictment of how white civilization has led to the elimination and loss of cultures that have been durable for centuries.

A film, in which the journey itself is more important than the ultimate destination, Embrace of the Serpent unfolds as a multi-dimensional historic adventure that urges us to see a painful situation from different perspectives.

Ultimately, like other movies of its kind, Embrace of the Serpent raises provocative theoretical and ideological questions about the very nature of depiction of native indigenous cultures in American as well as international cinema.

Embrace of the Serpent world-premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2015 Cannes Film Fes, where it was awarded the prize of the CIACE Art Cinema Award.

embrace_of_the_serpent_4It later also played at the 2015 Toronto, AFI, the Palm Springs Film Fests. While screening in the Spotlight section of the 2016 Sundance Film Fest, it was awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Prize

After winning the Golden Astor at the 2015 Mar Del Plata Fest, it was also nominated for the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Award for Best International Film.  In addition, it won eight Macondo awards, Colombia’s Oscars, including Best Film and Best Director.

embrace_of_the_serpent_3Filmmaker Ciro Guerra was deservedly named by Variety as one of the year’s Ten Directors to Watch.






Running time: 125 minutes

Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories

MPAA: Not Rated

In Spanish, Portuguese, German and Amazonian Languages with English Subtitles