Tuesday, August 30, 2016

OVP: Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

Film: Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
Stars: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis
Director: Ciro Guerra
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Foreign Language Film-Colombia)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

I see hundreds of movies every single year, and as a result, it's really hard to get me to a point where I'm surprised.  Don't get me wrong, I still get more than excited by movies and can love new movies (though this summer that count is a bit underwhelming), but it takes a lot for me to go into a film and wonder what the hell is going on, and in a good way.  That was my experience with the provocative, Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent, one of several films last year that felt pretty atypical by Academy standards.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film tells two concurrent tales, one set in 1909 with Theodor (Bijvoet), an explorer who is dying joining a younger man named Karamakate (Torres), who is taking him to a place with the fabled Yakruna, a fictional plant that has healing and hallucinogenic powers.  At the same time, another explorer named Evans (Davis) is interacting with a once lost older man, strongly implied and eventually confirmed to be the elder Karamakate (Bolivar) who has lived most of his life in seclusion in the jungle.  Both follow a trek with largely similar stops, though the effects of time show themselves in fascinating ways for a world that at first glance feels "untouched."

After all, from our standpoint we see very little change in terms of nature in this world, and instead only are able to use landmarks along the way to distinguish the ravages of time, as otherwise to the audience, there isn't much that seems to have changed in this dank, dense jungle.  The film does its best to keep this seem largely outside of space and time.  There's little hint of technological advances, or even the World War that you'd normally expect in the 1940's story, and instead the only really changed outcome is the Spanish Mission that they come across, Apocalypse Now! style, late in the journey.  It's a wonderful pair of scenes, as the earlier one is a story about a group of religious zealots repeatedly beating young children for not converting wholly to the Catholic religion, while later in the 1940's we see what years of isolation has done to these children, who begin to worship a man who proclaims himself the son of god, and is so deranged he eventually has them eat him because his delusion has made him think he is the Eucharist.

The scenes are staggering, and really when Embrace is on point, it's hard to top.  You genuinely don't know where the movie will take you-thanks to Theodor largely disappearing in the 1940's timeline we don't know if we'll come across him later on in the film, perhaps thinking himself a god as well, or whether he simply died five minutes after his final scene.  In addition, in the more modern day stories, it's not clear how the film will end, since Evans himself does find the Yakruna, and one wonders if he has spent the entire film entirely mad, trying to chase a dream that cannot possibly be real.

The jungle photography is vibrant, and really a wonder in the black-and-white.  It's a shame that the film didn't end up on the shortlist for a Cinematography Oscar nomination, as it probably earned it as the wonderful combination of modern advances with old photography (sometimes the film feels like it was shot in the era it was filming) add an authenticity to it, to the point where you half expect it to be a documentary.  All-in-all,the only caveats I really have with the film is that they don't go into the madness or motives enough of Theodor or Evans late in the film for their cruel hatred that runs forward for Karamakate.  Particularly for Evans, who has had a relatively pleasant demeanor for the full film, it feels wholly out-of-place, and even though it ended where I thought it would, I figured that both of them having the exact same attack felt symbolic but not distinct enough between the two,

Still, this is a small quibble to have with such a fine movie, one that I expect will just grow upon re-watch.  If you've seen it, please weigh in-what are your thoughts on Embrace of the Serpent?  Did you find the ending perplexing as well, or were you already so in "wow" mode you didn't care?  And where does this rank among last year's Best Foreign Film nominees?  Share below!

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