Colombian film has earned its turn in the spotlight. Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpeiente) competes tonight at the 88th annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles.
It’s the first time a Colombian film has ever been nominated for an Oscar, meaning a win would also be a historic first for the country.
Of course, Embrace of the Serpent has some tough competition in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Hungarian film Son of Saul, which follows a day in the life of a prisoner at Auschwitz concentration camp, has taken home other major awards season honors and seems to be a betting favorite.
Other Oscars gurus have called for an upset from the Turkish-French collaboration, Mustang, about five orphan girls growing up in a remote village in Turkey.
The other nominees are Theeb, from Jordan, and A War, from Denmark.
But even if Embrace of the Serpent walks away without a golden statuette Sunday, it is a milestone for Colombian cinema, and a dramatic validation for the work of its director, cast and crew.
“When I was growing up, there was no film culture or film industry here ,” director Ciro Guerra told The City Paper back in 2009 after winning acclaim for his feature The Journeys of the Wind (Los Viajes del Viento). “It was always a dream, but it seemed very far-fetched.”
It’s hardly a far-fetched dream any longer.
Colombian film has gradually gathered more and more international acclaim, thanks in no small part to Guerra’s work.
Colombia’s The Land and the Shadow (La Tierra y la Sombra), from director Cesar Acevedo, swept several prestigious awards at Cannes last May, as did Embrace of the Serpent.
Earlier this month, Between Sea and Land won a top prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
And now, the Academy Awards.
To be sure, Colombians are excited to see their country compete for the top honor in film. Social media has lit up all week with hashtags like #ColombiaEnLosOscar (Colombia at the Oscars).
Public officials have offered their support for the film.
“If you haven’t seen Embrace of the Serpent, this is a good moment to do so,” said Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras on Saturday.
President Juan Manuel Santos pointed out the government’s role in promoting Colombian cinema through a law that offers generous incentives to filmmakers working in the country.
Even Bogotá’s Torre Colpatria skyscraper lit up with images from Embrace of the Serpent on Saturday night to celebrate the movie’s success.
In other words, regardless of its success at the Academy Awards, Embrace of the Serpent is already a winner.
Review: Embrace of the Serpent stuns
By Jared Wade
El Abrazo de la Serpiente is a uniquely Colombian tale and an achievement of film flush with stunning imagery, profound commentary on colonization, and a gripping performance by its lead actor.
The story, directed by Ciro Guerra, spans decades to artfully explore a degradation of culture in the Amazon that took centuries, starting with conquistadors, reaching its height during the rubber-boom era of the film, and continuing today through economic, political, and environmental forces.
Our guide throughout this black-and-white picture is Karamakate, the last surviving member of an indigenous community that was killed by outsiders when he was a boy. We meet him as is a young man without tribe or family, yet one who steadfastly retains his identity and belief structure.
His initial objective in the film is to aid a German scientist and an indigenous companion upriver in search of a sacred plant called “yakruna.” The German is sick, barely able to continue his journey, but Karamakate uses an Amazonian snuff remedy to improve the man’s condition.
It is immediately apparent that the scientist would be lost and dead if not for the knowledge and compassion of his new indigenous protector.
The film is one of voyage and discovery with the key scenes all coming during their journey. Their river trip in a small canoe includes a laughing fit by Karamakate, who cannot comprehend why the white man is struggling to lug crates full of needless items through an oppressive jungle.
A haunting scene depicts the three-man crew encountering what seems to be an enslaved, one-armed indigenous rubber collector who wishes for death. And later they arrive at the key location that ties together the two-tiered, decade-spanning narrative of the film, a Catholic mission where a brutal religious conversion center for children devolves into depravity.
In less-skilled hands, a film featuring a native guide speaking universal, natural-world truths to ignorant white men overly concerned with material possessions could turn into Avatar or another hackneyed, preachy cartoon.
But Embrace of the Serpent never does.
It leaves much of the core message in the subtext, allowing Karamakate, who is played expertly as a young man by Nilbio Torres and late as an elder by Antonio Bolívar, to show the loneliness and deep sadness that has befallen the people of his region.
While Karamakate does confront the materialism of the white men directly — and defiantly in the movie’s symbolic climax — the director does not fall into the trappings of cliché nor does he portray the indigenous characters as pure good in conflict with evildoers. All the main players are layered and nuanced.
One telling scene shows an old Karamakate in a hammock, perhaps talking in mid-nightmare or perhaps all too awake, sobbing and moaning that he is forgetting the ways of his past.
He is alone, aging, and carrying the burden of knowing that his community’s culture will die when he does, while also remaining aware that he himself is losing the connection to his past.
On top of the powerful themes, the movie triumphs in displaying the grandeur and beauty of the Amazon. In this sense, you can’t help but wish it were shot in color, although the black-and-white does effectively place you in the past. And it allows for lighting and shadow elements that transform this from mere movie into art.
Shot largely in the Colombian state of Vaupés, the river feels endless as Guerra is able to bring this Amazon location to life, never more than when old Karamakate arrives on the shore near the spectacular Cerros de Mavicure, a series of giant rocks that extend prominently above an otherwise unbroken rainforest canopy.
In Colombia, Embrace of the Serpent made history by being the nation’s first movie ever nominated for an Oscar. The subject matter and execution are much larger than an award show, however. Guerra has accomplished something loftier than winning a statue, tackling such a difficult tory and delivering a film with all the complexity and wonder befitting the Colombian Amazon.