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Movie Review

Oscar nominee ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ goes up the Amazon

Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” was a best foreign language Oscar nominee this year.Oscilloscope Laboratories photos

Some people journey down the river to find the heart of darkness, others to search for enlightenment. The explorers in Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” seek lulling difference? The film was a best foreign language Oscar nominee this year.

Guerra bases his film on the journals of two ethnologists who explored the Colombian Amazon in search of lost tribes — the German Theodor Koch-Grünberg in the early 1900s and the American Richard Evans Schultes in the 1940s. They wanted to learn about the culture of these people, who had been living the same way since Paleolithic times. The ethnologists were especially interested in their knowledge of plants and herbs, including those of the hallucinogenic variety, little knowing that their research would ultimately give birth to Timothy Leary, tie-dyed T-shirts, and Vanilla Fudge.


Here they go by the names of Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and Evan (Brionne Davis). Guerra adds a third, fictitious character to link the two real ones: Karamakate, a shaman who has fled the ravages of the rubber barons and missionaries to a refuge where he can preserve the lore of his people.

As a buff young man in the 1900s he grudgingly helps the gaunt, moribund Theo find a flower that will restore his health — and his ability to dream. Karamakate is played by indigenous amateur actor Nilbio Torres, a loin-clothed Adonis.

In the parallel narrative set in the ’40s, a middle-aged, less svelte Karamakate (indigenous amateur actor Antonio Bolívar Salvador), helps Evan, who arrives decades later looking for the same miraculous plant. And maybe a new species of rubber trees to help out the war effort. Those imperialist white guys just can’t help themselves.

Evan can’t dream, either.

Guerra alludes to Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God” and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (one sequence makes Kurtz’s hellish realm look like Disneyland). But it most resembles Jim Jarmusch’s meditative, monochromatic masterpiece “Dead Man.”


Though some of the concepts may be New Age boilerplate, the film’s images linger; especially that of the river, the snake devouring us all.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½


Directed by Ciro Guerra. Written by Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, based on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes. Starring Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolívar Salvado, Brionne Davis, and Jan Bijvoet. At Kendall Square. 125 minutes. Unrated.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.