An Amazonian epic at Aspen Filmfest |

An Amazonian epic at Aspen Filmfest

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
"Embrace of the Serpent" won the Director's Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival and plays Sunday at Aspen Filmfest.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ at Aspen Filmfest

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

When: Sunday, Sept. 27, 2:30 p.m.

How much: $15 GA; $12 Aspen Film members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

“Embrace of the Serpent” transports viewers to a troubling and tragic time for the native peoples of the Amazon.

Shot in a lush black-and-white by Colombian director Ciro Guerra, the film is based on the journals of explorers Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes. It delivers a damning critique of colonialism in moral terms that are as stark as its mesmerizing cinematography.

The time is the early 20th century, when Europeans have ravaged the jungle and its indigenous cultures in pursuit of rubber.

It tells two parallel stories, both following the shaman Karamakate as he leads white explorers through the Amazonian wilderness as they search for a sacred plant. Also known as “the world mover,” he is among the last of his people carrying on its traditions. A young version (Nilbio Torres) is intense and angry, raging against the ways the rubber trade has decimated his way of life.

“Rubber means death,” he says.

He is disdainful of Theo (Jan Bijvoet) as he arrives, sick and in search of a healing plant, and is equally disapproving of Theo’s local guide (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) for helping him.

“I’m not like you, I don’t help the whites,” he says.

Karamakate demands the white man obey his laws of living with nature, such as not eating fish from the river until the rainy season, but hesitantly agrees to help him.

The older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) is warier and has lost grip of many of his culture’s traditions as he paddles the ethnographer Evans (Brionne Davis) down the river.

Both his young and old self scold the explorers for overburdening themselves with luggage and boxes of possessions. He scoffs at their money. When offered U.S. dollars, the old Karamakate laughs, “Ants like money. I don’t. It tastes bad.”

The shaman takes both men on perilous journeys, covering much of the same ground. Within the span of less than a generation between the trips, the land and the native people have suffered gravely. Visits by each explorer to the site of a Christian mission, for instance, are among the film’s most disturbing sections. In the first, a priest attempts to wipe out orphaned children’s language and tradition through whipping and prayer. In the second, decades later, a crazed Kurtz-esque white man on the compound is worshipped by natives as the messiah.

This bracing critique is dedicated, at its conclusion, to the lost cultures of the Colombian Amazon. Over the course of two hours, the multi-language film invites us all to bear witness.

“Embrace of the Serpent” won the Art Cinema Award in the Director’s Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival in May, making it one of the most highly touted independent films of the year. It plays Sunday at 2:30 at Aspen Filmfest.



“Embrace of the Serpent” is among the foreign film highlights in Aspen Filmfest’s seven-movie Global Visions track. Also in the lineup:

“The Passion of Augustine,” Canada

Saturday, noon, Paepcke Auditorium; Sunday, 5 p.m., Crystal Theatre

At her convent in rural Québec, Mother Augustine has long enjoyed a reputation for nurturing young classical musicians. Now she finds that not just her music but her way of life is at odds with the sociopolitical upheaval of the 1960s. Léa Pool’s light-hearted drama explores the inevitability of change and the courage required to confront it.

“The New Girlfriend,” France

Saturday, 8:30 p.m., Paepcke Auditorium

French master François Ozon’s bold and provocative adaptation of a story by mystery writer Ruth Rendell about the burgeoning friendship between newly widowed David and Claire, his deceased wife’s best friend, raises questions about the nature of identity, desire, and sexuality in the modern world.

“El Cinco,” Argentina/Uruguay

Saturday, 8 p.m., Crystal Theatre; Monday, 2:30 p.m., Isis Theater

Argentinian writer/director Adrián Biniez’s unconventional coming-of-age romance about a self-defeating pro soccer player in midlife crisis takes a wry, engaging look at love’s redemptive power.

“Dough,” U.K.

Tuesday, 2:30 p.m., Isis Theater

An exploration of the unlikeliest of friendships, this heart-warming dramatic comedy revolves around Nat Dayan (played by the venerable Jonathan Pryce), an aging Jewish baker who has fallen on hard times. When Dayan hires charming young Ayyash, a Muslim refugee from Dafar, business begins to boom. But is it all too good to be true?

“The Dark Horse,” New Zealand

Tuesday, 8:15 p.m., Isis Theater

Kiwi megastar Cliff Curtis (“Whale Rider,” “Once Were Warriors”) gives a towering yet tender performance in writer/director James Napier Robertson’s spirited drama based on the life of Maori chess master Genesis Potini.

“The Second Mother,” Brazil

Wednesday, 2:30 p.m., Isis Theater

Val, the longtime housemaid and nanny to a family of means in São Paulo, accepts without question her station in life. Enter Jéssica, the smart and strong-willed daughter Val hasn’t seen in years. Examining the boundaries between old ways and new, filmmaker Anna Muylaert’s family drama is both social study and sharp-edged comedy.