Worth Embracing: Oscar Nominee ‘Embrace Of The Serpent’

Movies can educate, stimulate and provoke us; they can also take us places we have never been. That is the marvel of Embrace of the Serpent, which transports us to the Columbian Amazon to share two separate but related experiences forty years apart. Filmmaker Ciro Guerra based his script on the diaries of two white explorers who venture into unknown territory and attempt to befriend—and in some ways exploit—a shaman warrior while searching for a rare plant that is said to have great healing powers.

By shooting in widescreen black & white, Guerra and cinematographer David Gallego move their story one step away from contemporary reality, which is appropriate for a film that traffics in surreal and psychedelic imagery. The two white men who seek help from the natives along the river are quite different: a Dutch man who is desperately ill when he meets the shaman, Karamakate, in 1909, and an American in the 1940s whose motives are not nearly as pure. Like everyone else who represents Western civilization, they wreak havoc on the culture of Colombia and its many tribes. The one link between them is Karamakate and the secret he protects.

Guerra has explained, “There’s an idea in many of the texts that explores the indigenous world that speaks of a different concept of time. Time to them is not a line, as we see it in the West, but a series of multiple universes happening simultaneously. It is a concept that has been referred to as ‘time without time’ or ‘space without space.’

Embrace of the Serpent-3-680

Photo by Andrés Córdoba – Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

         “I thought it connected with the stories of the explorers, who wrote about how one of them came to the Amazon following the footsteps of another explorer before him, and when he would encounter the same indigenous tribe, he would find that the previous explorer had been turned into myth. To the natives, it was always the same man, the same spirit, visiting them over and over again. This idea of a single life, a single experience, lived through the bodies of several men, was fascinating for me, and I thought it would make a great starting point for the script.” Guerra collaborated on the screenplay with Jacques Toulemonde.

Embrace of the Serpent is slowly paced but it’s as elegant as it is eloquent. The film celebrates life along the Amazon and condemns those who sullied it, whether for profit or to propagate a religious ideal. Perhaps its greatest achievement is that it makes us forget we are watching a movie: we become so immersed in its exotic environment that it doesn’t seem possible a camera crew could be standing nearby documenting what we see. Yet another worthy Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this one deserves to be seen on a theater screen.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024