Five weeks on the nose…do I deliver, or what?! As promised, all five 2015 Best Foreign Film Academy Award nominees, reviewed in just a little over a month. And I’m pleased to report, that I’ve inadvertently saved the best for last. Colombia’s “Embrace of the Serpent”, from Ciro Guerra, is presented in gorgeous black-and-white (cinematography from David Gallego), with an incredible sound design (from Carlos Garcia). The film certainly stands on its own, but the cinema savvy will detect elements of Herzog, Joseph Conrad, and, of course, “Apocalypse Now”. And I’m still trying to decide if a distinctive flavor of “2001: A Space Odyssey” towards the finale, was the right way to go. Currently, I’m leaning yes. Plus, there’s a Malick scent present too. Read this as praise, “Embrace of the Serpent” is mesmerizing stuff.
There are two distinct time lines, one in 1909, the other in 1940. And this film is loosely inspired by the diaries and journeys of two actual scientists (German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American Richard Evans Schultes). Each are led by an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres as a young man, and Antonio Bolivar as the old version). The scientists are each scouring the Colombian rain forests along the river, for the rare and mythical yakruna plant. Said to contain remarkable healing powers, the herb is sought for in desperation by Theo (Jan Bijvoet), as he rapidly deteriorates from a contracted illness. Evan’s (Brionne Davis) intentions are somewhat different, but each arrive at a pivotal juncture, after their individual hazardous odysseys. Along the way, we learn of the distrust and hatred for the “white man”…especially the tortuous rubber barons.
I was enraptured by “Embrace of the Serpent”. This is a remarkable achievement from writer/director Ciro Guerra. He orchestrates all the intricate elements of this dual narrative beautifully. Is he a bit too obvious with his choices occasionally? Perhaps. But the completed project is laden with purpose and intensity…and ultimately a bit of magic and mysticism. It’s dynamite stuff. And the location work proves wondrous and absolutely stunning to behold. You should absolutely experience this on a large screen, with a state-of-the-art audio system. I did…and it felt like those raindrops and crickets were all around me. By the way, completing my usual quest, I’ve now published reviews of every single feature film nominee, in every single Oscar category. This was the last to complete things from the most recent slate. What a way to wrap things up.