By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Every year there’s a Best Foreign Language Film nominated that there’s no chance even your most dedicated film fan, non-private jet and unlimited free time edition, could see. Inevitably, it’s the most unique of the nominees, and inevitably when it does become available months later you can see why it made the cut.
Bust Oscar’s chops all you want, but we live in a world where Dogtooth got a nomination.
Embrace of the Serpent filled that slot for 2015, with a Colombian jungle-set story of Karamakate (Nilbio Torres young/Antonio Bolivar old), the last of his tribe and a renowned medicine man, who encounters two white men in two different time periods- a German explorer (Jan Bijvoet) wasting away from a tropical malady who promised to take him to the rest of his people if he can find a flower that can cure him, and 31 years later, an American botanist (Brionne Davis) looking for the same flower… and maybe something else.
Embrace of the Serpent is as much a novel as a film, like something springing from the mind of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Mario Vargas Llosa with a dark Cormac McCarthy tint. This is a horror story of rubber baron and Mission colonialism and the way it brutalized and perverted a people and an environment, but its a story with a strong undercurrent of humor and the trademark Colombian magical realism.
Where this is just another Tuesday afternoon.
This is a film of big ideas (culture clash and subsumption, corruption, colonialism, the unavailable taint of white men’s motives, environmentalism, isolationism, faith and doubt) and bizarre interludes, from an ongoing and horrific nature doc metaphor of a boa devouring her young and a jaguar tensed to spring to multiple visits to an isolated jungle Mission that devolves into a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare.
Director Ciro Guerra has full control of tone and emotion through technique with masterful deployment of black and white cinematography and Nascuy Linares’s score full of unsettling drones and pulsating chants. Some shots, like a slow pan not just across space, but time as well, are an entire film unto themselves.
All of the actors are excellent, from Bijvoet’s explorer and Yauenkü Migue’s loyal guide and assistant to Davis’s later botanist with ulterior motives. However, this movie belongs to Torres and Bolivar in turn, playing younger and older versions of Karamakate. As we witness and learn about his past and see how it shapes his attitudes and his mission, he becomes as complex, compelling, tragic, and relatable a character as any 2015 produced.
The CGI butterflies are kind of cheesy, as is the Fourth Wall-breaking environment plea. The real weakness of Embrace of the Serpent, though, is how by the end it can be read as a White Savior tale. That’s… not where the film looked like it was going to end up, and maybe not quuiiitttee where it did, but it’s too close for comfort.
If Embrace of the Serpent had beaten Son of Saul for Best Foreign Language Film, most of us would be discovering why right about now. A Triumph.
Embrace of the Serpent (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for each different language that you hear (hint: there are at least seven)
Take a Drink: “chullalaqui” or “potoclo”
Take a Drink: for refreshing nose blows
Take a Drink: “restrictions” or “sun semen”
Do a Shot: for good, hard drugs