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Embrace the Serpent

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Embrace the Serpent 3One of the films juried into this year’s Fort Myers Film Festival is a title named Embrace the Serpent. It’s so good that it garnered an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. Although Son of Saul took the golden statue, Embrace the Serpent is the first Columbian film to ever be nominated for that honor. It’s a really big Embrace the Serpent 1deal for Columbians, who had watched the industry disintegrate in the 1980s and 1990s under the yoke of drug violence and guerrilla warfare.

“This is a very special moment for Colombia that is reflected in this film,” said Colombian Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzón before a private screening of the film at the Motion Picture Association of America in Washington earlier this year. “As you Embrace the Serpent 2know, Colombia was having difficult times for a long time. Things have changed in a positive way…. At the same time, things are happening in the movie market.”

Embrace the Serpent takes viewers into the Amazon. “In choosing to make his third feature film out of a story set in the Colombian Amazon, Embrace 14director Ciro Guerra entered a world that Colombians themselves don’t know much about,” writes reviewer David Montgomery for The Washington Post’s Arts & Entertainment Section. But while he started with the diaries of two explorers who paddled and trekked through this secret land some 40 years apart in the first half of Embrace 17the 20th Century, Guerra decided to tell his story from the point of view of the indigenous people they encountered instead of the explorers themselves.

“Guerra and co-writer Jacques Toulemonde created the character of Karamakate, a shaman, the last survivor of his people, who meets the white Embrace 13explorers loosely based on the real ones during their respective explorations, separated by decades,” Montgomery notes. “The fictional explorers are seeking the same rare and sacred plant that has healing and psychedelic powers. The film braids the two encounters together as the young Karamakate accompanies the European and the old Karamakate travels with the American. In Embrace 12old age, the shaman has forgotten some of his sacred knowledge and memories, and his quest involves recovering his past and seeking a way to pass it on so that it will survive.”

And it is this aspect of the film that provides Embrace 15viewers with its greatest degree of poignancy and resonance. Karamakate’s memory and vibrancy have eroded so much that he refers to himself resignedly as a chullachaqui — a ghostlike alter ego that is empty and hallow and merely drifts through the world.

“Memory is a central theme in Embrace of the Embrace 18Serpent, as is the struggle for permanence in a world that is constantly threatening to erase one’s identity,” writes Collin Brennan in Consequences of Sound. And Guerra underscores this message by shooting the majority of the film in black-and-white. “There’s an abstracted quality to black-and-white film that makes an image appear more timeless, more authentic somehow,” Brennan Embrace 19continues. “One might think the filmmaker mad for not taking advantage of the vivid colors of the jungle, but this is not a film about visuals so much as a film about the conflict between letting go of the past and holding onto it for dear life. Rendered without color, the Amazon also appears more alien to us — more entirely unknowable. This is a world that exists fully outside of our own, without even Embrace 20the most basic of sensory reference points to grasp onto for comfort.”

If this were all Embrace the Serpent had to offer, it would be enough. But the bulk of the film is actually devoted to observing the folklore of individual tribes and learning about their greater Embrace 22spiritual belief system.

Of course, not every reviewer has raved about the film. “The movie never becomes particularly visionary, much less trippy,” proclaims the exalted one, Roger Ebert . “It’s an earthbound, prosaic story that plays by most of the usual commercial Embrace 21storytelling rules … [which] is frustrating because in every other way, the movie is original in concept, remarkable in execution, and filled with characters whose motivations and personalities are developed with clarity and humor.”

Ebert aside, Embrace the Serpent is that rare film that has the power to transform, to shake one’s Embrace 10belief system so thoroughly that one feels like a slightly different person walking out of the theater. “If there’s a better argument for a piece of art than that,” counters The Washington Post’s David Montgomery, “I’d sure like to hear it.”

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