After an Oscar season that was packed to the brim with survivalist epics, viewers could be forgiven for not wanting to see yet another “man vs. nature,” movie. However, if there’s one film that weary audiences should make room for, it is Embrace of the Serpent. Sure, it doesn’t boast flame-throwing murder guitarists or Leonardo Dicaprio, but this splendid little film out of Colombia may just be awards season’s best kept secret. Ciro Guerra’s spellbinding film tells the story of two explorers separated by thirty years who sperlunk through the treacherous Amazon in search of the sacred and mysterious yakuruna plant. Blocking their path are disease, infighting, and the spectre of a jungle where everything seems alive and deadly. Connecting the two narratives is Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman who is tasked with guiding each explorer to the sacred plant. He is played to near perfection by Nibio Torres and Antonío Bolivar, first as a stoic but angry young man, then a world-weary old crone. Both incarnations exude the desolation of life in endless expanse of the Amazon and the loneliness of being the last of one’s tribe.
Importantly, the film also largely eschews the typical and problematic tropes of other films that deal with colonization and exploration. The indigenous peoples are neither noble stereotypes nor are they savages. On the other hand, the white characters are neither saviours nor cartoonishly evil caricatures; however, that isn’t to say that the film avoids the disastrous legacy of colonialism. Perhaps the most interesting character in the film (save for the Karamakate) is Manduca, a recently freed slave who struggles to cope with both survivor’s guilt and his continued subservience to colonial interests. The film doesn’t spoon feed these issues to the viewer but it also doesn’t mince words. During an awards season that has been marred by questions of racial diversity, a revisitation of the complex origins of prejudice in the Americas might be just what the doctor ordered.
The film is also gorgeous. Simply put, Embrace of the Serpent is a feast for all the senses. Black-and-white cinematography may seem to be a peculiar choice for a film set in the vibrant Amazon rainforest, but it works on every level here, giving the jungle a texture and depth that you simply can’t find anywhere else. The film also uses little non-diegetic sound, instead immersing the viewer in the sounds of the jungle to mesmerizing effect. Though more understated than say, The Revenant, the film’s visual and auditory achievements are as substantial as anything released this year. Overall, it warranted more than just a nod for Best Foreign Film from the Academy.
Embrace of the Serpent doesn’t make it easy for you. It assumes that viewers will care about a black-and-white retelling of two century-old rainforest expeditions. Subtitles are a must; the film seems to be in a thousand languages, not one of which is English. But give Embrace of the Serpent an inch, and it’ll give you a mile. Get lost in the jungle. Trust me, you might not want to come back.