Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Embrace of the Serpent

The reason I follow the Cannes Film Festival, every damn year, is because it gives me an early signal of what are movies in the coming days that I really want to watch. There are several films from this year’s roaster that I want to see, including Audiard’s ‘Dheepan’. I am a big Audiard fan.

But, more than anything else, I want to see this film: The Embrace of the Serpent by Colombian director Ciro Guerra. The trailer looks breathtaking and the early reviews are rapturous.

Keep your eyes open.

“The Embrace of the Serpent,” Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s visually rich, black-and-white adventure saga about the ravages of colonialism in the Amazon, won the top Art Cinema Award at the 47th Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes on Friday.

A follow-up to Guerra’s 2009 Un Certain Regard entry, “The Wind Journeys,” “Embrace of the Serpent” (which is being sold by Films Boutique) follows the parallel journeys of two different ethnologists, both searching for a rare flower deemed sacred by Colombia’s indigenous population. Along with Thursday’s honors for the Critics’ Week entries “Paulina” (from Argentina’s Santiago Mitre) and “Land and Shade” (from Colombia’s Cesar Acevedo), the victory for Guerra’s film suggests it’s been a particularly strong festival for Latin American cinema, despite initial concerns that the region might be underrepresented, at least in the official selection.

The Fortnight’s SACD Prize, presented every year to a French-language film by the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers, was awarded to “My Golden Days,” Arnaud Desplechin’s emotionally resonant coming-of-age prequel to his 1996 Cannes entry, “My Sex Life, or … How I Got Into an Argument.” The award represents a vindication of sorts for the veteran French auteur, whose film premiered to widespread acclaim in Directors’ Fortnight after having been denied a slot in the official competition.

“My Golden Days,” which is being sold internationally by Wild Bunch, marks the screen debuts of young leads Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet. The film opened in French theaters on Wednesday.

“Mustang,” a debut feature from Turkey’s Deniz Gamze Erguven, won the Europa Cinemas Label for best European film in the Fortnight. The film, which is sold and co-produced by Kinology, is set in a remote Black Sea village where five young sisters are forced to suppress their blossoming sexuality. Cohen Media Group acquired North American rights to the film this week, following its festival screenings.


A visually mesmerizing exploration of man, nature and the destructive powers of colonialism, Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) marks an impressively realized third feature from Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra, who last came to Cannes in 2009 with his critically lauded drama, The Wind Journeys. Featuring knockout black-and-white cinematography and an array of breathtaking locations, this ethnographic journey into the heart of the Amazon – with a whopping total of nine different languages spoken on screen – should see additional festival play and a few niche art house pickups after its premiere at the Directors’ Fortnight.

Reminiscent of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu in its recreation of colonial events through a richly nostalgic modern prism, the story (written by Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde) was inspired by the journals of two explorers who traveled through the Colombian Amazon during the last century: the German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and the American Richard Evans Schultes, here transformed into the characters Theodor (Jan Bijvoet from Borgman) and Evan (Brionne Davis).

Cutting between 1909 and the 1940s, the parallel narratives chart each man’s voyage down a similar stretch of river as they search for a rare flower, the yakruna, with alleged healing powers. On both journeys they are guided by the same forlorn native shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres in ’09, Antonio Bolivar in the ‘40s) – the surviving member of a tribe that was wiped out by years of brutal foreign invasions.

Filled with regret over the loss of his people and unable to fully trust the men he agrees to accompany downriver, Karamakate ultimately proves an invaluable resource to the explorers, both of whom are curious about his culture and willing to go along for the ride without knowing where they’re headed. Theodor, who’s suffering from a fatal illness, is especially dependent on the witch doctor’s powers, taking hits of an herbal medicine (that could be some form of cocaine) in order to stay alive.

Following the dueling voyages as they head further into the heart of Amazonian darkness, Guerra and talented DP David Gallego use pristine widescreen imagery to underline the beauty of a place that’s slowly and sadly headed toward oblivion. For every magnificent stretch of forest and river, there are telling signs of destruction, such as a rubber plantation where a mutilated worker begs to be put out of his misery, or a Catholic mission that over the years becomes a decadent fiefdom ruled by a religious quack – an early version of the Kurtz compound in Apocalypse Now.



The sublime and the insane make engaging traveling companions in Embrace Of The Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente), which traces the journey of two different scientists across the Amazon, their destination just as rewarding as the arduous road to get there. Colombian director Ciro Guerra (The Wind Journeys) has some familiar things to say about respecting the natural world and not overvaluing technological advancement, but this widescreen black-and-white odyssey, which crosscuts between two time periods, slowly but satisfyingly transitions from realism to the fantastical, even the cosmic.

Screening in Directors’ Fortnight, Embrace Of The Serpent looks to be a favourite on the festival circuit, whereas theatrical prospects may be a far trickier proposition. With no stars, a period time setting and a black-and-white colour scheme, this defiantly art-house offering will need glowing reviews to make commercial headway. That said, Embrace’s increasingly wacked-out tenor might attract genre crowds, which could embrace the film’s brand of stoned strangeness.

The movie takes inspiration from two men, Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes who, separately, traveled down the Amazon in the early 20th Century looking for information about the primitive cultures that lived there. That factual jumping-off point allows Guerra to construct an almost mythical tale that has more than a passing resemblance to Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness — or, at the very least, Francis Ford Coppola’s audacious adaptation, Apocalypse Now.

In Embrace, Theo (Borgman’s Jan Bijvoet) travels with Amazonian shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) by boat in search of a fabled plant with healing properties, while 40 years later Evan (Brionne Davis) takes the same path with an older Karamakate (Antonio BolĂ­var), hoping to complete Theo’s research.

Judged by its opening reels, Embrace seems to be a gorgeous-looking but rote travelogue where supposedly enlightened white Westerners discover how little they understand about nature’s elemental powers. (Cinematographer David Gallego gives the locations an otherworldly quality, the black-and-white not just suggesting the past but, more specifically, a land out of time.) But Embrace’s somewhat pedestrian opening is a bit of a feint, luring us into the expectation of one kind of story when, in fact, Guerra plans to go much darker and more philosophical than we imagine.

In keeping with the film’s folktale-like simplicity, the performances are unadorned, bordering on stoic. Bijvoet plays Theo as a dedicated scientist who is about to realise that his years of painstaking research can’t prepare him for what the jungle has in store. However, he’s not a cartoon villain — an easy fill-in for the stereotypical Conquering White Man — and neither is Evan, who Davis portrays with sympathy while hinting at the man’s overconfidence in his own intellect. Both Karamakate actors perhaps oversell the character’s grim-faced solemnity, but their calm, powerful faces are enough to suggest this shaman’s deep wells of wisdom and wizardry.


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