Feb 26

5 reasons why ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ should win an Oscar



This coming Sunday (February 28th) is the day of the 88th Annual Academy Awards, or Oscars to all you laymen out there…and Colombia has it’s first ever Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the fantastic jungle epic El Abrazo de la Serpiente, or ‘Embrace of the Serpent.’ Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s third feature film as writer and director is an atmospheric, intense piece dealing with the history of colonization in the Amazon, psychedelic plants, indigenous rights, the complex relationship between humans and the jungle, and, in a broader sense, human nature, and what it means to be the last of your kind; all of it set against the jungles and river of the Colombian departments of Vaupes and Guainia.

Although not the favorite to take home the prize on the night (that distinction goes to Hungarian film ‘Son of Saul’), I firmly believe (as a Colombia-lover and film-lover) that Embrace of the Serpent deserves to bring home Colombia’s first Oscar, and here are 5 reasons why…


Embrace of the Serpent
Some of the cast of Embrace of the Serpent


1. It doesn’t fetishize or marginalize Amazonian indigenous cultures…

Unlike Werner Herzog’s ‘Fitzcarraldo,’ which too often reduces indigenous people to the role of mute bystander, or John Boorman’s ‘The Emerald Forest,’ which fetishizes Amazonian tribes, and consigns them to the roles of either gentle, noble savage, or murderous barbarian, ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ treats indigenous people with a sensitivity and balance usually lacking from cinematic portrayals of the Amazon. Karamakate (the shaman-like main character, whom we see both as a young and old man) is a fascinating character, at once noble and mistrusting, wise and humorous. And, most importantly, he is the star of the film, not a supporting cast member to a tale of the ruin of a capricious European adventurer – the film doesn’t present the jungle as a place that white men go to lose themselves, but rather as a complex, multi-layered space, where distinct groups of people have lived and survived for thousands of years, as evidenced by the variety of languages employed by Guerra in the film. New Republic posed the question: “Is this the greatest film ever made about the Amazon?” It might be too soon to say yes, but there has never been a film, certainly not an Oscar nominated one, that has done such a great job of capturing something like the real essence of indigenous Amazonian peoples and putting it on the screen. Possibly helped by the fact that…



2. Many of the actors aren’t actors

This, in itself, is not a reason to award a film with an Oscar, but when you see what a wonderfully performed and acted film ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ really is, you start to believe that maybe the fact that many of the stars are not actually actors is enough to justify the top honors. Both Antonio Bolivar and Nilbio Torres (old and young Karamakate respectively) and Yauenkü Migue (who plays Theo’s aide Manduca) were not actors when discovered by Guerra and cast for his project…and look at the wonderful, nuanced performances they turned in! As someone who just doesn’t get all the fuss for Leonardo Di Caprio’s breathy, intense-staring turn in ‘The Revenant,’ I was blown away by the subtlety of the main cast’s performances here – wouldn’t a best actor Oscar for an indigenous first-time actor be a turn up for the (cooked Hollywood) books, eh?! I can dream, can’t I?! I’ll settle for Best Foreign Language Picture this time…


Embrace of the Serpent


3. The cinematography is stunning…

I never really thought that a black-and-white film about the Amazon, a region so associated with color (mainly green to be fair), could be so animated and evocative of place as ‘Embrace of the Serpent.’ Turns out I was wrong, doesn’t it!? This film looks incredible: from the long shots over the roaring rivers of Vaupes, the menacing wide-angles of the Mavecure Hills shrouded in mist in the distance, and the sharply focused shots of the suffocating jungles, David Gallego’s cinematography deserves an award in itself. When combined with Nascuy Linares’ excellent score, what we see on the screen is a highly evocative, beautiful film, which subtly captures the timeless quality of the old back-and-white Amazon expedition photos from the early 20th Century, examples of which are shown over the credits.


Embrace of the Serpent
The film carries a message…


4. This is a film that stands for something important

I know that Oscars are supposedly all about the film and the art, but I just gave you 3 reasons why ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is a visually stunning film, with excellent acting, so bear with me! This film not only offers a prescient message about the destruction of indigenous cultures (‘fun’ fact: Antonio Bolivar, who plays old Karamakate, is actually one of the last of his people, the Ocaina), and the violent history of the region, but also carries a message that we must never forget the lost voices of the jungles of South America, and must not repeat the catastrophic errors of the past. By so effectively demonstrating the contradictions inherent in our dealings with the Amazon and it’s native peoples, ‘Embrace of the Serpent,’ offers up a timely slice of wisdom regarding our relationship with these far-off places – I’ll let you take your own message from this complex work of art, but I will say that a film with this depth of spirit would be a worthy winner of a humble Oscar! 


Embrace of the Serpent
Oscars, let’s be ‘avin you!


5. It’s Colombian, dammit! 

C’mon, you didn’t think I was going to be objective, did you!?


Doesn’t this man look nice?! Let’s give him an Oscar then!



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