Film & TV

Weekend's Best Film: Embrace of the Serpent

It was no surprise to Colombian writer/director Ciro Guerra when his movie Embrace of the Serpent didn't win an Oscar this year. When New Times spoke with him a few weeks before the Academy Awards show about his nomination, he laughed and said, “Honestly, I have no idea how it works. I’m just very happy that we made it all the way. I don’t have any expectations.”

As the first Colombian film to be nominated for an Oscar, it made history regardless. And what a film it is. Taking place in two eras of exploration in the Amazon jungle, one by an ethnographer at the turn of the century and another by an ethnobotanist about 40 years later, Embrace of the Serpent follows the last living survivor of the Cohiuano people, a shaman named Karamakate, played by two indigenous nonactors — the younger Nilbio Torres and the elder Antonio Bolivar. Karamakate leads the explorers on expeditions to find a rare plant that is supposed to enlighten those who ingest it.

The film was shot on black-and-white super 35 film, for the most part (it bursts in color for a climactic finale). Guerra said he had many reasons for shooting the film this way. One was the black and white photography in the books he studied, the journals of German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who inspired the characters of the two explorers in the film, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and Evan (Brionne Davis). “What I saw in them was an Amazon that was completely different from the Amazon that we have in our mind. It’s an Amazon that’s completely devoid of exuberance and exoticism..”

On a more profound level, the black-and-white cinematography pays reverence to the true experience of the Amazon. “When I went to the Amazon and I started sharing with the community, I realized that it was not possible to convey the true color of the Amazon on any kind of color film,” Guerra says. “They have 50 different words for what we call green. I thought that if I maybe put it in this way, the audience could imagine.”

Guerra’s efforts to transport the audience extends to a magnificent score by Nascuy Linares that combines indigenous music with electronic drones and electric guitar. He also edited the film with Etienne Boussac to smoothly alternate between the two eras, sometimes within a single camera movement.

“I was trying to find a way that allowed the audience to see the world [as] the Amazonians understand time,” Guerra says of his storytelling. “They have a conception that is closer to quantum physics, this idea of time not being a linear thing but simultaneous multiplicity.”

The film builds to an incredible climax. Guerra says about the ending, “It’s an abstraction, but it’s also a glimpse of when you have this spiritual experience. You experience a fracture, sort of the world breaks and opens up, and so the film needed to break itself at that point. It needed to crack itself open and show you a glimpse of something you cannot really understand, that you cannot explain, but you are aware of its power.”

Embrace of the Serpent
Opens Friday, March 11, at Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema Wynwood, and the Bill Cosford Cinema. March 14, the film will screen at Tower Theater.

Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.