Monday, March 7, 2016

BFLF nominee, Ciro Guerra's EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT is some kind of masterpiece

Little wonder this new film, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT -- from Colombia and one of the five nominees for the recent Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-- made the Academy's cut. It's one of those movies you will have seen nothing quite like: A two-hour-plus trip down (or is it up?) the Amazon, with a native guide the likes of which you also will not have encountered, in which the voyage is split into two tours of duty, with two different white explorers but the same Shaman guide. This is because these trips take place maybe 40 or 50 years apart.

As directed and co-written (with Jacques Toulemonde Vidal) by Ciro Guerra , shown at and shot in the kind of black-and-white cinematography (by David Gallego) that will pin your eyes to the enormous beauty on screen and hold them there for the film's full 125-minute running time, this movie moves back and forth between time periods with ease and skill, combining a documentary-like look and feel with so much exotic beauty and the kind of simple, effective storytelling that we don't really get so much of anymore.

Beginning with words from the diary of a German explorer of the Amazon (the film is based on the travel diaries of Theodore Koch Grunberg, 1872-1924, and Richard Evans Schultes, 1915-2001), the film begins as a character named Theodore, near death, is brought by his guide, Manduca (played by Yauenkü Migue), to a native shaman, Karamakate, who is then begged to save the explorer's life.

Karamakate, played as the younger man by the impressively built and quietly charismatic actor, Nilbio Torres, above, is slowly persuaded to help bring Theodore (Jan Bijvoet, below, center) back to life and then further help him to find the famous healing plant called Yakruma.

Their search takes them, along with Manduca, up the famous river with various stops along the way -- one of which brings our crew into New World religion via a Capuchin monk who is converting and then "educating" the pagan natives. During all this we learn more surprises about our threesome, as they try educating these youngsters -- that monk, too -- along the real path of righteousness.

Back in more modern times, we view with increasing alarm that same monastery, and the man who now runs the place, as our other "hero," Evan (Brione Davis, above) and the older version of Karamakate are taken prisoner there and witness -- in fact, contribute to -- some awful goings-on. It is interesting that religion accounts for the most violent parts of the film.

Friendship, exploration and culture clash provide much of the movie's theme, yet its real message -- and yes, it sho 'nuff has one -- is utterly vital to us today. As the film has moved along, we've heard and seen snippets of Colonialism, rubber plantations, torture, and more, and we're told, via the two Karamakates, of a kind of contract with nature, land and water that must not be broken.

Then, in one brief exchange, one native tells the other, "If we cannot get the whites to learn, it will be the end of everything." Well, they haven't learned, and the end is now in sight. Embrace of the Serpent does not hammer home its lesson, though. The finale, in fact, presents on of the most beautiful views of a leopard ever seen on film, as our more modern travelers finally reach their destination, symbolically and geographically.

Evan gets a dose of the drug he's been wanting, has his "trip" (some color is at last shown us, though it was not really necessary), and the lesson has been taught. What will happen after, we can only hope. The movie, a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, may be the most beautiful obituary ever filmed.

Embrace of the Serpent, released via Oscilloscope Laboratories, after opening in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere across the country, will play here in Southern Florida beginning this Friday, March 11, in Miami at the O Cinema, the Miami Beach Cinematheque and the Bill Cosford Cinema (it will also play the Tower Theater in Miami come March 14); and in Hollywood at the Cinema Paradiso. On March 18 it will hit Lake Worth at the Lake Worth Playhouse and Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters. No matter where you live across the country, the movie is likely to show up there. Click here then click SCREENINGS on the bar atop the page to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities/theaters listed.

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