Review: Embrace of the Serpent


DIR: Ciro Guerra • WRI: Ciro Guerra, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal • PRO: Cristina Gallego • DOP: David Gallego • ED: Etienne Boussac • MUS: Nascuy Linares • DES: Angélica Perea • CAST: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenku Migue, Nicolas Cancino, Luigi Sciamanna, Edward Mayo


With his new film, Ciro Guerra intensifies his study of nature and travel, motifs which have pervaded his work thus far. Embrace of the Serpent is essentially a road movie set in the Amazonian jungle. The script is loosely based on the travel logs written by botanists from Sweden and American decades apart, both searching for the elusive and fabled yakruna plant. The explorers seek the plant for medical and spiritual reasons respectively.

The source material forces the split structure of the narrative between Theo’s (Bijvoet) journey in 1909 and Evan’s (Davis) in 1940. The two stories are unified by an Amazonian shaman Karamakate, played by Nilbio Torres in 1909 and Antonio Bolivar in 1940, as he is persuaded by the two travellers to aid them in their journey. In the earlier story, Karamakate is more sceptical and reluctant to help an ailing Theo, while an older Karamakate is more at peace and philosophical in his relationship with Evan.

The aesthetic of the film is quite dreamlike, which is intensified by the crisp black and white cinematography and the unconventional intercutting between the two stories. Guerra manages to capture the vast freedom and morbid fear of going into the great unknown. The director achieves this by using contrasting imagery of nature, from the beautiful to the vile. The film’s editing and the characters our travellers meet creates an almost psychedelic vibe not unlike Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013). Both films also share a common theme of searching for the unknown.

The film’s subject matter harkens back to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) in its depiction of a strange and reclusive cult, and the work of Werner Herzog in the overriding theme of the relationship between man and nature. Embrace of the Serpent is certainly a unique cinematic experience, however, the film’s relationship with itself stops it from becoming wholly immersive, juggling between the strikingly real nature of the setting and the mythical aspects that such great untouched beauty inevitably creates.

The film has garnered critical acclaim from critics and earned Columbia its first ever Oscar nomination for Foreign Language film. While the naturalistic storytelling and imagery is fantastic on a surface level, the finer points of the narrative require a fearless and deeply inquisitive traveller to fully appreciate, something which this reviewer cannot claim to be.


Tom Crowley

124 minutes
12A (See IFCO for details)

Embrace of the Serpent is released 10th June 2016

Embrace of the Serpent – Official Website


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