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This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Ciro Guerra’s fourth feature dives deep into the Amazonian jungle with an unconventional narrative that is virtually impossible to sum up succinctly. His visually stunning Embrace of the Serpent tells two parallel stories and focuses on four main characters — two botanists, an Amazonian native and a shaman — and the clash between the seemingly civilized botanists and the natives. The film jumps back and forth in time, refusing to unfold in a linear fashion.
But plot is not the point: Guerra has created a fever dream with a sense of melancholy for a forgotten world. Yet amid all the jungle’s lush greenery, the 34-year-old native Colombian chose to film in black and white, inspired by the journals and photographs of the early 20th century explorer Theodor Koch- Grunberg.
“These black-and-white plates show a lost world, an Amazon that doesn’t exist anymore,” says Guerra. “They take out all of the exuberance and exoticism you usually see. I wanted the film to feel like it’s a place that exists but is in another world, another time.”
The film’s unusual structure also reflects the jungle inhabitants’ unique concept of time. “Films about the Amazon are usually told from the explorers’ point of view,” observes Guerra. “The way indigenous people understand time is not linear, and it gave me an opportunity to tell a story in a spiral way.”
Guerra says his desire to make an Amazon-set film was driven by the fact that the region long was off-limits to average Colombians thanks to the decades-long drug war. “The Amazon means so much to Colombia, but we don’t know much about it,” he says. “So the film started as a journey into the unknown, which is how it starts for the audience as well.”
On Jan. 14, the film was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar.
Jan 14, 7 a.m. Updated with the news of the film’s nomination for the 2016 Oscars.
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