Colombia is not a nation known for its cinema (to be fair, it’s probably tough to focus on the creative process when your nation's been beset by six decades of armed conflict). Which makes ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ – nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars – even more remarkable. An account of Amazonian exploration and exploitation set in two different time periods, the film’s influences are plain: Herzog, ‘Apocalypse Now’, Tarkovsky and heavy psychedelics. But the result is unique and intoxicating, an art movie that grips like a thriller.
It’s 1909, and terminally ill German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) is on the trail of yakruna, a sacred plant said to have healing properties. He recruits young mystic Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), the last of his tribe, as a guide. Thirty-one years later, American scientist Evan (Brionne Davis) takes up Theo’s quest, and starts by tracking down the shaman, now living alone in the jungle painting rocks. What follows is a dreamlike, episodic road movie by canoe, as first Theo, then Evan come face to face with the ghosts of a tribal past and the horrors of a colonialist present – all leading to a finale of cosmic, mind-expanding beauty.