Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra delivered his native land its first ever Academy Award nomination for his newest film, and it’s hard to argue against the nod when looking at the lush, dreamlike backdrop of nearly every frame in Embrace of the Serpent. The picture is presented almost entirely in black-and-white, lending an element of hazy secrecy that is met with an equal feel of extreme realism – something that helps Guerra’s modestly budgeted film pull off some of its century-old settings with a textural ease. Roughly half of its running time is spent with a very young version of the main character, Karamakate, as he reluctantly assists an imposing scientist locate the legendary psychedelic plant, Yakruna, in the 19th century Amazonian forests and rivers. In intercutting scenes many decades later, we find him performing essentially the same service for a more modern and young scientist.
At its surface, the film seems as though it’s about the relentless journey through a vast land for an exotic plant. Will they find the leafy organism or is this expedition all for naught? Experiencing the film with these objectives in mind would undoubtedly leave the viewer empty handed and let down. There are moments of poignancy in the picture, but they lie more in the depiction of yet another home court of a people invaded by the assumed liberties of the white man. Guerra draws his story from the actual journals of real-life individuals who traveled into these unfamiliar lands to look for intoxicating plants, and it is the always threatening interactions between these wildly different cultures where the film earns its most intriguing moments.
Yet, for every good stretch that I found myself genuinely engrossed in the experience, there were other times when I starting to become detached. It’s during the final act, particularly, where these two aspects played tug of war with my overall experience of the bigger picture. There have been many comparisons to the hypnotic odyssey of Heart of Darkness, and its atmosphere inevitably merits such comparisons, but the film simply never tightens enough of a grasp to hold that kind of strangle on me. It’s because of this semi-failed execution to cross from good into great that its 124-minute running time becomes a bit of a problem at about the 90-minute mark. There are many moments that work, but one cant help but pine for a version of the movie trimmed down by a solid half-hour. Now that could have been something a tad more special. As it stands, though, Embrace of the Serpent – opening March 11 at Landmark’s Ken Cinema – still comes out as a fairly unique and recommended watch.