Joshua Reviews Ciro Guerra’s Embrace Of The Serpent [PIFF 2016]


With even the Oscar nominated short films currently nearing the end of their theatrical run, one would imagine that just about every single film with a nomination in this year’s Oscar field would either be in theaters right now, or awaiting a home video release after a lengthy run in theaters big or small alike. However, if you’re director Ciro Guerra, you’re film is not only hitting theaters for the first time this week, but still making the festival circuit.

With a limited release beginning on February 17 in New York and on February 19 in LA, Guerra’s latest film, the Oscar nominated foreign language film Embrace Of The Serpent, is also part of this year’s Portland International Film Festival, and joins The Sky Trembles as not only the festival’s most profoundly beautiful picture, but one of the most sumptuous black and white features in ages.

As Ben Rivers’ film takes us into the Sahara for his meditation on art, chaos and frustratingly long titles, Guerra’s film is not only less esoteric, but also far more conventional in its structure, introducing us a shaman by the name of Karamakate. Told in two separate time periods roughly over 40 years apart, the film focuses itself on Karamakate, as he meets and befriends two different scientists with entirely different ideals. Based upon the actual journals of two men (Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes), both of whom we meet their fictionalized versions in this picture, the two scientists are on the hunt for what is known as the Yakruna plant, a rare and deeply important plant with psychedelic effects to those who consume it. Shot almost entirely in black and white (there is a burst of color near the very end of the film, but it’s a deeply moving moment, so no spoilers shall be found here), this two hour feature is a haunting and profoundly affecting meditation on colonialism, so focused on the battle between modernity and tradition that, if it were shot in Monument Valley and in bright Technicolor, this would fall squarely in the classical Western tradition.

Performances here are, across the board, superb. Nilbio Torres as the younger Karamakate is particularly great, as the bulk of the picture’s emotional resonance is placed squarely on his shoulders. While most filmmakers would make the two scientists the respective leads of the picture, Guerra’s film is much more interested in Karamakate’s story, one of a man whose people are on the verge of extinction, and traditions on the verge of being wiped from history. His distrust in the beginning is palpable, but there’s also something tender about this “savage,” with the real brutality coming at the hands of two separate men intruding upon this land. Antonio Bolivar Salvador plays elder Karamakate, whose tribe is now entirely wiped out, and the sadness within this man is devastatingly clear. His relationship with “Evan” is one of distrust, but it also sees the film at its most contemplative, which leads to its glaring flaw.

Script-wise, the film is a touch too blunt with its themes. Not above having the characters verbalize many of the picture’s central themes, Embrace shows great nuance in the relationships between its collective lead characters, but when it comes to their respective places within the world, and the differences therein, the film crystallizes its themes verbally. However, with such great performances at its core, this becomes less an issue as the performances become more magnetic, and the visuals become more engrossing. Guerra, with Embrace, makes himself one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, taking a film where nine languages are spoken and turns it into one of the most powerful and genuinely awe-inspiring achievements in years. With gorgeous black and white photography surely the main discussion topic for anyone and everyone who lays eyes on the film, Guerra’s frame is also noteworthy, never once drawing attention to itself, instead simply portraying this land as grand and dangerous as it truly is. Shot in the Amazon, this film is the type of nightmare one has after a deep dive into hard drugs, and the other worldy, spiritual nature of the picture only doubles down on its dream-like style. This is, simply put, an absolutely stunning cinematic achievement.

Fri, Feb 12, 2016 at 5:45 PM (Cinema 21)

Sun, Feb 14, 2016 at 7 PM (Moreland Theater)


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