The Oscar nominated Embrace of the Serpent is nothing short of a miracle. A Colombian film, shot in black and white, features some of the greatest atmosphere I have seen from a 2015 film. Cico Guerra’s motion picture is an absolutely fascinating piece, which may not appeal to everyone, but certainly had me enthralled with eyes wide open most of the time I was watching it. A real film stunner you might say.
Taking place in 1909 and 1940, Embrace of The Serpent details the story of two explorers, one German named Theodor Koch-Grunberg, and the other American, named Richard Evans Schultes. They find a Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman, and last member of his tribe while on their quest to find a rare yakruna, a very sacred plant. Loosely inspired by the true diaries of these two men, the film details much of the struggles and the people the crew encounters on their journey on the Amazonian River.
One of the things that makes Embrace of the Serpent work so well is that much of the filmmaking is bent on giving perspectives to different characters and locations. For example, there’s a long-widened shot near the beginning of the film where we see the back of the native Karamakate as he first encounters the two explorers. It’s quite fascinating to watch, and really sets up the overall tone of the film. Another example is when we see the shot of a random panther, and we see the large cat looking at the ship of the crew, perhaps trying to get at them, before deciding to settle on eating a snake. It’s filmmaking at its absolute best, and it helps tremendously to escalate the overall somewhat dreary nature of the film.
There isn’t a lot of music in this film. Instead, there’s a bunch of sound effects of cricking, chirping, water falling, and all of the things you’d find in a jungle. There are some ancient styled tribal music used in a few scenes, particularly when one of the tribe leaders they encounter uses a Latin chant in order to give a rousing speech to his people. It’s quite effective and helps to build the mood. Another good piece of music is playing when they show a long forest shot, which feels quite techno.
There are some really cool sequences in the film, too. The opening features shots of sea creatures, such as an octopus in the water, and a snake swimming before it cuts to the title card. There’s also an apparent dream sequence near the end in which the Karamakate‘s eyes glow yellow and then they shoot out rays. The scene then changes to the stars, where we see constellation designs in the sky. It’s a cool sequence, and it really comes out of nowhere.
Most of the acting in the film is pretty good, but special mention goes to the lead actor playing Theo, Jan Bijovet, whose breakdown and ultimate craziness is believable. Especially, during a sequence in which the crew encounters a village of natives, and one of them gets shot in the arm during an unusually over the top scene.
Embrace of The Serpent is a real surprise. It’s a film that builds and builds to an unusual climax. It does feel split into segments, involving characters going from one location to the next, but that’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t try to shy away from the dangers of the wild, and it feels like a realistic, adventure movie. There are a few graphic scenes, including one in which native children get whipped, which is disturbing, but overall, as far as Foreign Language films, and native stories go, this one’s a real winner.