Embrace of the Serpent Review

A black and white stroll down the Amazon river, across time and culture

The 2015 Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) is certainly one of the more unique cinematic experiences of recent memory. Its black and white photography and effortless blending between two separate periods of time combine for an almost hypnotic response in the viewer, blurring past and present as well as fiction and reality. Just as we settle into one mood of curiosity and intrigue along comes another to disrupt the calm. At the very least, the picture is a remarkably artistic achievement. It dares to depict lives rarely, if ever, revealed on film, and it does so with humanity above all else.

Director Ciro Guerra also co-wrote the screenplay with Jacques Toulemonde, and they based their story on the actual journals of two different explorers who spent time, decades apart, in the Amazon jungles of Colombia. Searching for the elusive Yakruna plant, the men in the film – one a German, the other an American – both encounter a shaman named Karamakate. These varied yet somehow similar interactions between the local Amazonian and the white outsiders form the basis of the movie as Karamakate acts as a guide through the harsh jungle. The German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) has his journals published, later inspiring American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) to go on a similar search for this sacred, psychedelic plant native to that particular area.

Embrace of the Serpent perhaps grows in stature upon certain realizations that only get pieced together as the film progresses. As fascinating as the images are is, there’s an element of smoke and mirrors until the entirety of it all is available in aggregate. We’re watching elements of European colonization at work here. There’s a definite political slant woven into the film. We see, early on, Karamakate disheartened to realize what he’s forgotten. Clearly he’s a stand-in for much more than the single character on screen. There’s emphasis on widespread destruction of culture at the hands of white intruders.

Another sequence, with the older Karamakate and the American Evan, involves these boxes the latter had insisted on bringing onto the canoe as they travel the river. The shaman is outspoken in his objection to them, that their weight is creating problems. Evan is extremely reluctant to part with the objects he has inside the boxes but eventually does save for one – a record player. This leads to a quietly conflicting image of the two men sitting in the grass with the record player and the viewer left to wonder if the blending of cultures is beautiful and promising or something closer to dangerous or foreboding.

At the very end of the film a screen of text notes the dearth in historical record of those like Karamakate. Generations and cultures unknown and unable to provide their own accounts in the history we accept. Beyond the narrative force within Embrace of the Serpent, it’s that realization – focusing on typically ignored effects of European colonization – that resonates the strongest. It’s the ripple in the otherwise calm area of the river.

The Disc

Nominated in the Foreign Language category at the most recent Academy Awards, Embrace of the Serpent comes to DVD and Blu-ray in the U.S. via Oscilloscope Laboratories. The review copy I was sent is a standard DVD (region-free) in regular plastic packaging. A separate Blu-ray release is also available. The UK editions should be coming from Saffron Hill in September.

The film is presented in widescreen anamorphic 2.35:1. The black and white cinematography is frequently lush and gorgeous. O-scope’s digital representation looks a bit flat on DVD, though presumably stronger on Blu-ray. There are no signs of damage or significant issues on display.

Audio is available in separate 5.1 Surround and Stereo tracks, mixing multiple languages including English, German, Huitoto, Latin, Portuguese, Okaina, Spanish, Tikuna and Wanano. There are optional English subtitles which are white in color. The sound itself emerges cleanly and with keen balance.

The special features included by Oscilloscope Laboratories offer a nice amount of supplemental material. “Making Embrace of the Serpent” (23:45) was done by the film’s creative team and is largely subtitled in English. “Adventure, Culture, History, Magic” (9:35) takes a look behind the scenes of the production. “Lessons from the Amazon” (15:01) is an interview done for this release with actor Brionne Davis, who plays Evan in the movie, in which he shares some of his experiences from the filming. Also included is the U.S. theatrical trailer (2:08).

clydefro jones

Updated: Jun 28, 2016

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