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Review: “Embrace of the Serpent” a magical hero’s journey; “Only Yesterday” is misplaced anime

Embrace of the Serpent documents the dominant culture's decimation of indigence people.
Embrace of the Serpent documents the dominant culture's decimation of indigence people.
Embrace of the Serpent documents the dominant culture's decimation of indigence people.
Embrace of the Serpent documents the dominant culture’s decimation of indigenous people.

A journey into a heart of darkness — and wonder — the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent is that rare kind of work that really, truly transports you as film only occasionally manages to do. 

Let’s get the Werner Herzog references out of the way. Yes, Embrace will remind you of the German director’s South American plunges into jungle-y madness: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). The new movie also shares some DNA with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, mad Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and any other tropical fever-dream of a film that take you indelibly to another time, place and way of seeing the world.  

Loosely inspired by travel diaries of German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (1872-1924) and American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), Colombian director Ciro Guerra immediately introduces us to cultural dislocation. Shooting in a lustrous black-and-white, the camera pans across the Amazon River and discovers, standing on its shore, a totemic, near-naked mass of warrior muscle named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres). It’s the turn of the 20th century in South America, but we could be looking eons back into the past.

Living alone in the jungle, having seen his fellow Cohiuano tribe members killed off by European rubber barons, Karamakate isn’t in a welcoming mood when a canoe approaches carrying a white man and a fellow Amazonian dressed in Western clothes. These are the German Theo (Jan Bijvoet, star of the Netherlands’ wonderfully twisted Borgman) and his native guide/servant Manduca (Yauenkü Migue). The latter clashes immediately with Karamakate, who sees Manduca’s assimilation as a terrible betrayal of their people. 

Nevertheless, seeing that Theo — who claims a fraction of the Cohiuano tribe has survived — is ill, Karamakate agrees to lead the men to the location of a fabled, healing plant called yakruna. But only if they obey the rules of the jungle: The men may eat no fish or meat until the rains come, and intercourse with women is verboten until the moon shifts into its next phase. 

The film then silently, seamlessly shifts ahead several decades, revealing another bearded, middle-aged Westerner in a canoe. This time it’s the American scientist/explorer Evan (Brionne Davis) who also meets Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar). Karamakate has changed in more ways than just the extra lines in his face and flesh around his waist. He’s gradually forgetting his culture and losing ties with the natural world. “These rocks used to talk to me, they answered my questions,” he says. “The line is broken, my memories are gone. Rocks, trees, animals — they all went silent.” 

But again, he agrees to help this white man on a botanical quest, especially since Evan shows him the published journals of Theo — which survived the Amazon, though the German ethnologist himself did not. 

From here, the film shifts between these two expeditions, separated in time but sharing common themes of the clash between nature-honoring and “civilized” societies, and the dangers of cultural plunder. (Director Guerra stages one especially lovely, simple transition between the two timelines midway through the movie.) 

Along the river, Karamakate and his companions encounter workers enslaved, and mutilated, by rubber merchants. And the film visits a Christian missionary twice — once in the first timeline, introducing a priest who indoctrinates local children and strips them of their native tongue and gods, and again in the second timeline, when these two belief systems have cannibalized each other to become “the worst of both worlds.” That fatal fusion is embodied by a mad young man, who beds child brides, declares himself the Messiah and makes Joseph Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz look downright sane. 

Embrace of the Serpent is so full of visual and narrative grace notes, you’ll forgive it when it goes a little vague and mystical at the end with a head-trip finale that recalls the psychedelic interplanetary flight in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The monochromatic images even give way suddenly to color. The ambiguous ending doesn’t weaken the movie much. As with the greatest of adventures, it’s ultimately all about the journey, not the destination. 

Screening in the States for the first time on the 25th anniversary of its original release in Japan, the anime Only Yesterday is a product of fabled Studio Ghibli. That’s the place responsible for Hayao Miyazaki’s high-flying fantasies (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), films often centered on a pre-adolescent girl.

Only Yesterday features one, named Taeko, whom we also meet as a 27-year-old, recalling the schoolgirl discoveries that make up the bulk of the film. Except for one brief scene of whimsy, the movie is a realistic drama. Coming from a studio with such a strong brand, Only Yesterday feels like an odd outlier, even a strange use (or misuse?) of the animators’ skills. 

That’s not to say it isn’t worth a look. Young women can probably relate to Taeko as she deals with awkward crushes as a girl, and as a woman tries to find her place between the city where she works an office job, and the countryside where she likes to vacation and help the locals harvest their crops. Directed by Isao Takahata (responsible for 1988’s devastating Graveyard of the Fireflies) the movie is always lovely to look at. But in the end, I wasn’t convinced that this story couldn’t have just as easily been told as a live-action film. 

Embrace of the Serpent. With Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis. Directed by Ciro Guerra. In Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin and Amazonian dialects, with subtitles. Unrated. 125 minutes. At the Plaza. 

Only Yesterday. An animated feature directed by Isao Takahata. Landmark is screening this film in both the original Japanese, with subtitles, and a dubbed English-language version. Rated PG. 118 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. 

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