Take elements of Aguirre, Wrath of God, add a dash of Malick, a hint of Jodorowsky, and a pinch of Gaspar Noe at the finish, and you’ve got a rough approximation of what to expect from the wild new black and white psychological horror film Embrace of the Serpent. Playing almost like a thematic cousin to Ben Wheatley’s descent into madness A Field in England, this bold and challenging new film from Columbian writer/director Ciro Guerra announces an exciting new voice in independent cinema, as he’s cooked up a film that feels indebted to previous masters and their magnum opuses, but a work that feels adventurously alive as well as completely unpredictable. If you’ve seen the trailer, you might think you know what you’re in for, but one of the best aspects to this mind-freak-fest was that while it unfolded, it constantly subverted my expectations. The narrative contains two parallel stories, taking place between the years 1909 and 1940, and is fused together by the appearance of an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate, who happens to be the sole survivor of his tribe. The film details the journeys and experiences of two scientists, a German named Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet, the enigmatic star of the amazing film Borgman), and an American named Richard Schultes (Brionne Davis), both of whom were looking for the sacred, ultra-rare and potentially life altering Yakruna plant.
The script was loosely inspired by the two men’s diaries which detailed their work in the jungle. I loved this film, but I can totally understand why it might frustrate and alienate some viewers. This is one of those hearts of darkness exploration films, where men are guided by sometimes insane and stupid methods of thought, in an effort to seek some form of enlightenment not thought to be attained any other way. The themes of religious paranoia, the destruction of indigenous cultures, and the exotic setting of the jungle when juxtaposed by the high-contrast monochromatic cinematography by David Gallego all add a further layer to the surreal aesthetic package; lingering shots of the jungle and an emphasis on nature certainly point to the works of Malick, and it’s fascinating to continually observe that artist’s influence over so many young, upcoming filmmakers. The fully immersive sound design and at times mournfully soulful score by Nascuy Linares imbues the film with a sense of unique vitality. Embrace of the Serpent has, rather shockingly, been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars (I simply cannot believe this fact…), while it won the Art Cinema Award in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Filmed on location in the Amazonia region of Columbia and spoken in a variety of languages including Portuguese, Latin, Amazonian, German, and Spanish, the film is continually unnerving, and by its cosmic finish, more than a little trippy.