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Embrace of the Serpent/El abrazo de la serpiente


Stars: Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, Antonio Bolivar Salvado Yangiama, Nilbio Torres, Miguel Dionisio Ramos

Director: Ciro Guerra

This extraordinary, deservedly Oscar-nominated (and winner of many worldwide awards) drama is one of those very few films that not only eminently reward seeing but also leave you wanting to see it again, since you can be almost certain to have missed some of writer-director Ciro Guerra’s compelling examination of the iniquities of colonialism, religion and the brutal exploitation of the people of Colombia.

The narrative focus is on an Amazonian shaman, the last of his tribe, whose help is enlisted over some 40 years by two scientists – each with a very different agenda – whom he guides along the Amazon in search of a sacred psychedelic Yakuna plant that the seriously ill German explorer needs to save his life…

Guerra’s screenplay, co-written with Jacques Toulemonde and inspired by the travel diaries of Theodor Koch Grunberg (1879–1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001) which contain the sole existing accounts of many Amazonian tribes, makes consistently fascinating viewing, beautifully photographed on fascinating Amazon locations in atmospheric monochrome by David Gallego.

The compelling narrative, seen through the eyes of the shaman, perfectly played by Nilbio Torres as a young man and later by Antonio Bolivar Salvador, comes across as a fascinating, complex character who progress along the river, storyline with some references, perhaps, to Apocalypse Now and Aguirre: Wrath of God, but with a unique and far more haunting and potent effect than either of these films,

Guerra’s combination of stunning imagery and apt story-telling creates a truly distinctive and compelling vision of a sadly lost world where the brutalities of imported religion and the morals-free commercial cruelty of the colonial rubber industry helped destroy the lives and the country of the original inhabitants.
Says Guerra (himself a Colombian) of his extraordinary story, “Before he can become a warrior a man has to leave everything behind and go into the jungle guided only by his dreams. In that journey he has to discover completely alone, who he really is. Some get lost and never come back.”

Unlike those luckless Colombians, it will be eminently rewarding to return to see Embrace of the Serpent again.

Alan Frank

Colombia/Argentina/Venezuela 2016. UK Distributor: Peccadillo Pictures. Colour.
124 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 2, Swearing 0.

Review date: 19 Jun 2016