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Reviews for February 17th, 2016

Embrace of the Serpent

Directed by Ciro Guerra

      In the early 20th Century, a German ethnologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), travels down an Amazon river in Colombia with his travel guide, (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) in tow, to search for a flower called yakuna which will cure his malaria. His only hope the find the much-needed yakuna is shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), who agrees to help him as long as he finds a member of his tribe in return. A few decades later, Evan (Brionne Davis), a botanist, also travels down the river with Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar Salvado Yangiama) in search of the yakuna flower while using Theo's diaries of his expedition to guide him in his search.

      Writer/director Ciro Guerra and co-writer Jacques Toulemonde have woven a two narratives about the clash between foreigners and indigenous cultures based on the diaries by Richard Evan Schultes and Theodor Koch-Grunberg. Theo and Evan's journeys are both filled with unpredictable events along the way as they run into locals, i.e. the group of sadistic Catholic clergymen that Evan runs into at a mission or the tribe that Theo befriends before one of them steals his compass. Throughout the film, Karamakate suspects that Theo and Evan want to exploit the Amazon land for rubber. Clearly, the indigenous tribes aren't particularly happy to see neither Theo nor Evan there. Guerra and Toulemonde jump back and forth between the narratives of Theo and Evan, but they do so in a way that still allows you to remain captivated and immersed in both stories without any loss of momentum. Just when you think the plot will go in one direction, it goes toward another that surprises you, especially in the third act that takes the film into a whole new level of boldness and brilliance a la the films of Terrance Malick and Stanley Kubrick's 2001.

      Much of the film is breathtaking to look at and serves as a travelogue. The decision to film in black & white (with a little use of color toward the end) makes a difference because it allows you easily absorb surroundings without being overwhelmed by all the bright colors that are found in the Amazon. The images you'll see are quite haunting and mesmerizing. That's all the more reason for you to experience Embrace of the Serpent on the big screen because, on the small, screen the power of its images would be diminished. Even when the pacing drags ever so slightly, there's still something to observe onscreen that keeps you spellbound much like in a Carlos Reygadas film. Prepare to be discussing and analyzing its thought-provoking ending and perhaps re-watching the film to grasp more of its brilliance. Concurrently mysterious, breathtaking, wondrous, lyrical, captivating and profound, Embrace of the Serpent is a truly remarkable achievement that's worthy of its Best Foreign Language Film nomination. It will be particularly rewarding for patient and intellectual audiences.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Opens at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Questions? Comments? Please click here.

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