Worlds col­lide in an­gry, po­etic Colom­bian film

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - South Broward - - MOVIES - By Ken­neth Tu­ran

Beau­ti­ful, strange, dis­turb­ing, “Em­brace of the Ser­pent” is a film with a lot on its mind. Set in Colom­bia’s Ama­zo­nian jun­gle and a for­eign lan­guage Os­car fi­nal­ist, it’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously a lament, a warn­ing and a cel­e­bra­tion of the lost and de­stroyed tribes of that re­gion, “all the peo­ple we will never know.”

Those words come from di­rec­tor and co-writer (with Jac­ques Toule­monde) Ciro Guerra, who, along with cin­e­matog­ra­pher David Gal­lego, has crafted a strik­ingly pho­tographed black-and-white epic that in­ter­twines a pas­sion­ate at­tack on the depre­da­tions of in­va­sive cap­i­tal­ism with a po­tent ad­ven­ture about two trips down that river into a Con­ra­dian heart of dark­ness.

Sep­a­rated by 40 years, each trip fea­tures a dif­fer­ent Western sci­en­tist, one Ger­man and one Amer­i­can, each ac­com­pa­nied by the same na­tive shaman, Kara­makate (played, be­cause of the age gap, by two dif­fer­ent ac­tors).

Both men are look­ing for the same thing, the sa­cred psy­che­delic Yakruna plant, but “Em­brace of the Ser­pent” is not a film about des­ti­na­tions, but one that in­volves us in jour­neys in the most in­ti­mate way.

The film slips so el­e­gantly be­tween its two time frames that it some­times seems that we are watch­ing one jour­ney dou­bling back on it­self in a mag­i­cal re­al­ism kind of way.

Ev­ery­thing that hap­pens is taken as a sign that points to a bond be­tween the jun­gle and the un­known that is al­ways dis­ori­ent­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally even ter­ri­fy­ing. MPAA rat­ing: Not rated Run­ning time: 2:15 Opens: Fri­day

The first jour­ney be­gins in 1909 with the enor­mously fit shaman Kara­makate (Nil­bio Tor­res) sens­ing a dis­tur­bance in the force. It soon ap­pears: a small boat car­ry­ing a se­ri­ously ill Euro­pean named Theo (Jan Bi­jvoet) and his guide, a con­ven­tion­ally dressed na­tive named Man­d­uca (Yauenku Miguee).

Man­d­uca has been look­ing for Kara­makate be­cause he is said to know the where­abouts of the Yakruna plant, which has the po­ten­tial to cure the dy­ing Theo (who’s based on real-life ex­plorer Theodor Koch-Grun­berg).

Kara­makate at first an­grily re­fuses to as­sist one of the toxic, pale-skinned in­di­vid­u­als even though Man­d­uca de­scribes Theo as “a wise man who has come to learn.”

But fear­ing as he does that he is the last of his tribe, Kara­makate agrees to help, un­der strict con­di­tions, when he dis­cov­ers that the white man might know where some fel­low sur­vivors are.

Though he is nom­i­nally their guide, the out­raged Kara­makate couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent than the docile Man­d­uca.

When, for in­stance, Theo ex­presses qualms about leav­ing a com­pass with a lo­cal tribe be­cause it might lead to the end of na­tive navigational tech­niques, the shaman snaps “you can­not for­bid them to learn. Knowl­edge be­longs to all men.”

When Amer­i­can Evan (played by Bri­onne Davis and mod­eled on Richard Evans Schultes) re­turns to th­ese wa­ters decades later in an at­tempt to re­trace Theo’s steps, Kara­makate (now played by An­to­nio Bo­li­var Salvador) is still in the river and will­ing to help, though he claims he can’t re­mem­ber where he is go­ing. When Evan says he has de­voted his life to plants, Kara­makate replies, “That’s the most rea­son­able thing I ever heard a white man say.”

The magic of Gal­lego’s black-and-white pho­tog­ra­phy, the twisty back and forth na­ture of the pro­ceed­ings and the charisma of the ac­tors who play the two Kara­makates keep this an­gry, po­etic film an un­set­tling jour­ney all the way to the end.


Yauenku Miguee, left, Jan Bi­jvoet and Nil­bio Tor­res in “Em­brace of the Ser­pent.”

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