embrace of the serpent posterLast week, Embrace of the Serpent, a movie that will certainly go down as one of the best films that saw release in the United States in 2016, started playing in area art houses in South Florida. This writer caught it last year as part of “Gems,” an annual mini film festival hosted by Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. For the most part, during the weekend-long event, I could tell when I saw excellent work (The Assassin, My Golden Days) and rather problematic work (Youth, The Club). But Embrace fell into another kind of category as far as cinematic experiences go. It confounded me. I knew I saw a brilliant film, though I did not understand how it worked as well as it did. It reminded me of the first time, back in 1999, when I saw Eyes Wide Shut in theaters. I knew I saw another masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick, though I could not express exactly why it was so great. Several viewings later, having read the source material and written about it during my master’s degree, I came to understand it better and admire it deeper (I promise to publish the Lacanian analysis I wrote of the film by the end of the year).

It was a similar experience with Embrace of the Serpent. It took a second and even a third viewing before I could confidently understand what a masterpiece this film was. In speaking with at least four other film critics, over the months since I first saw the movie, I learned I was not the only with that same experience.

With it’s commercial release in 2016 last month by the marvelous indie studio Oscilloscope, it came time to reckon with this movie. I was honored that Michael Koresky of Film Comment, Criterion Collection and now Metrograph fame, allowed me to tangle with a close reading of it on Reverse Shot, the website he co-edits with Jeff Reichert. You can read my in-depth and somewhat spoilery review (but I think it will enhance a first time viewing, if you don’t want to invest in seeing it more than once) by jumping through the site’s logo below:

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As the film headed to Miami, earlier this month, I also could not pass on an opportunity to speak to the film’s director Ciro Guerra, who helped clarify some questions I had about it. Guerra explained that he wanted to respect the culture he represents on the big screen. His research was extensive, including spending months in parts of the Amazon. After reading two books written by two early 20th century European explorers of the region, the German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, he came up with the film’s dual narrative with co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal.

The film’s stories unfold by alternating between the narratives, one at the start of the 20th century and the other 40 years into the future. The film’s lead character is Karamakate, played by two native, non-actors, Nilbio Torres and the elder Antonio Bolivar, as he guides two different explorers based on the authors of the books Guerra used for research (Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis) on similar journeys in search of a near extinct plant with hallucinogenic properties called the yakruna. And don’t bother looking up yakruna. Its name was made up for the movie. “The Shaman asked to keep it fictional because those names are sacred,” said the director, speaking via phone from his home country of Colombia. “You shouldn’t learn them from a movie,” he added.

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It’s a mystical film both thematically and cinematically. The connection between landscape and setting and the similarities among the different people Karamakate encounters speaks to the ineffable tangents of time and place (he thinks of the two explorers as the same man, as the later one uses the older one’s book in furthering his knowledge). This begs for something other than a straight narrative, which Guerra fulfills throughout the movie. He harnesses this anti-linear approach to storytelling to make insightful connections between scenes that share locations at different times as well as connecting the two explorers Karamakate guides through the Amazon basin via their essential selves and not their physical bodies. There’s even a duality in the shaman’s two selves that transcends age.

Below are some highlights of our conversation that should not spoil the film but allow for some insight into it. There’s simply nothing like this movie, and the more prepared you are for it, the more thrilling it will feel. Below our abridged Q&A you will find a link to a story I wrote in the Miami New Times, last week, which goes further into the concepts that inform the film.

Independent Ethos: What did the non-actors who played Karamakate surprise you with in their performances?

Ciro Guerra: I was very concerned about that at the beginning of the process because these are real people who haven’t been acting, and they have no relationship to theater or to cinema, so I thought it was going to be difficult to ask them to act. But they may not have this contact, but they have this oral tradition that they have kept alive for centuries really. So they know how to tell a story and they really, really know how to listen, and it’s not that easy to find an actor who can listen. They were especially happy about making the film and being able to perform in their own language.


What did either one of them bring to their roles that was special?

Nilbio, He’s more playful. He has a broader range. He could play very well if he’s angry. He could play very well if he’s sad. He could play with this very complex range of emotions because he’s really open to emotional experience. He’s a really dynamic actor. Antonio has the more serene approach. He just stands there and just with his existence, his gaze, looks at you. They were two completely different actors in a way, but what we did was we built on that. We constructed the two faces of a character, but they also trust their gut. They also helped us re-write part of the script to make them more accurate and true in many ways. It was a very creative process, a very collaborative process.

Where did you learn so much about pre-Colombian mysticism in the Amazon?

It was a long process of research. I didn’t know anything about it, but basically it was the writings of the explorers. They were my guides, at first, and then, when I arrived in the Amazon, I stayed about two and a half years, going back and forth and spending a lot of time with shamans, elders and different communities in the Amazon, learning about what makes the community different and special. It was very difficult at the beginning because in the Amazon you are constantly confronted. It’s just a different way of thinking from our own that it makes you wonder a lot of different things about who you are.


The sequence at the end of the film is amazing. How did you create those special effects?

It’s iconography of the Barasana people. That’s the way they represent the spiritual world. When we made the film, we didn’t want to do a special effects show. It was something more primitive. It was something a child could draw.

For me, the final scenes recall 2001‘s stargate sequence. Was that an influence?

Some people have said that, and it’s surprising to me, but it also makes perfect sense because these guys, these explorers, were the ones that opened up these ideas of the spirituality to the people, and that was something that was very big in the ’60s. So it sort of comes full circle in a way.

But it wasn’t a direct influence?

No, no, no. Maybe not on a conscious level because 2001 is one of my favorite movies of all time, so maybe on an unconscious level it was.


The musical score is incredible as well. It mixes electronics and native chanting. Can you tell me how this idea to mix the two came about?

It wasn’t just about using indigenous music, and that’s it. The film is about dialogue between two cultures, a dialogue that can be very violent at times, but it’s a story of cultures coming together, so the score is basically indigenous music in dialogue and the work of Western composers.

Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?

I couldn’t see the film in any other way. If I had to do it in color, I would prefer not to do it. It would be a completely different film.

This is the third time Colombia submitted one of your films to the Oscars. Now you are nominated. How does that make you feel?

It’s surprising. This year there were so many films by masters, and it was a surprise when we made the short list, but to be nominated is not something that you can see coming.

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You can read more of our conversation, including more on why Guerra shot in black and white, the quantum level of time and existence he learned from the Amazon tribes he encountered during the filmmaking process and how it influences his storytelling, in the Miami New Times by jumping through the link below:

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Hans Morgenstern

Embrace of the Serpent runs 125 minutes, is in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin, Tikuna, Cubeo, Huitoto and maybe some other Amazonian dialects with English subtitles and is not rated (expect violent images and transcendence via natural hallucinogens). It is now playing in our South Florida area at the Tower Theater, Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema Wynwood. To the north, in Broward it is playing at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., where it is scheduled to continue to roll out through April, visit this link and scroll down to “screenings.” We first saw this movie as a guest of Miami International Film Festival’s Gems event, in October. All images in this post were provided by Oscilloscope, except for that of the director, which is from IMDB.com. Oscilloscope also provided a screener link for repeat viewings.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

borgman-posterA good mystery movie does not always fit the classic whodunit model, with all questions tidily wrapped up like the ending of a “Scooby Doo” cartoon. Some of the more intriguing films sometimes have shrouded agendas and mystifying characters whose motives remain obscure despite behavior that may seem puzzling until the film’s final moments. These films often go beyond the most cerebral sort of entertainment. This loosens a film up for moral interpretation, allowing the viewer to question not only the action on screen but what he or she might bring to such films in an attempt to discern What It All Means.

One of the great examples of such a films is Borgman, the new movie by Dutch director/writer/actor Alex van Warmerdam. The filmmaker, whose film was the Netherlands’ entry for this year’s Oscars, shows little mercy to an audience that might wish to fully understand the motivations of the bizarre characters who subtly prey on an upper middle class family trying to live in isolationist bliss. Though there is enough associative action to enlighten the cause and effect of much of the film’s action— even if some actions seem supernatural— mystery still permeates the film.

Borgman opens with a title card in quotations but attributed to no one: “and they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks.” Who “they” are and from where they “descended” and why they wish to “strengthen their ranks” remains unknown by the end of the movie. More questions will arise throughout the film, whose title alludes to the film’s main instigator of much of the film’s action, the precocious Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), an unkempt bearded man who the viewer meets as he slumbers in a makeshift but spacious hole in the ground. Warmerdam does something gripping and mysterious at the start of the film, allowing the audience a bit of dramatic irony to bias them to something vaguely sinister about him and two other men, one played by the director (a character named Ludwig) and Tom Dewispelaere (Pascal). After the enigmatic title card, we first meet the trio’s hunters: an armed man holding the leash of an enthusiastic German Shepherd, a man with a large metal spear and a stern-faced priest wielding a shotgun. The hunters never speak, and though they destroy Camiel’s hidden home, Camiel slips away in the shroud of a smoke bomb and alerts the other two, who we also meet sleeping in beds under the earth.


It’s an opening sequence full of intrigue and tension, so when Borgman hustles into an opulent neighborhood, looking for a bath, we understand this to be a man with some possibly terrible threatening baggage. After a maid wordlessly slams a door in his face, he makes it to the home of Marina (Hadewych Minis) and Richard (Jeroen Perceval), who live with their three children and a nanny. They do allow him to open his mouth, and the words, though they end up enraging Richard into beating him up, still seem to be the key to his being given shelter by Marina. The domestic intrusion results in many startling encounters in the clash between a man who may be much more than a vagrant. Weird happenings and murder seem to abound around him.

There are also a few humorous moments that the viewer may think to understand only to have the rug of understanding pulled out from under them. The characters’ behavior follows a sort of logic of its own that keeps the film as riveting as flowing along with the slippery narrative of a dream. Though van Warmerdam drops a few narrative cues to maintain intrigue, they sometimes lead to dead ends. borgman_webSome may find this frustrating, but those who like mystery and appreciate the inherit ominous character of the unknown will appreciate Borgman. Though Marina tries to keep Camiel out of the house, holing him away in a guest house on the other side of the family’s expansive yard, with the curtains drawn, Borgman often finds his way into the main house. The youngest daughter names him first: “I saw a magician” she tells her mother.

What keeps the film engaging is the appearance of strange happenings or behavior that imply a history the audience is denied explanation for. While we know that Camiel, Pascal and Ludwig were chased out of some other town by a posse, we never know what set the locals off or what they knew about this trio of men who were simply trying to nap in their’ homes below ground. Maybe they are mischievous gnomes? Yet that would only superficially explain why the live underground. The implication that Borgman might be a demon arises when, in several scenes he is seen crouching naked over a slumbering Marina. The image appears after a domestic scene between husband and wife turns brutal, revealing she is having vivid nightmares. The influence of Fuseli’s The Nightmare, something the film’s poster artist brings up in this interview, could imply Borgman is an incubus.


The cause and effect can be heavy-handed in this scene. But for moments like this, there are finer moments of subtly loaded with quirky implication. Two large whippets somehow enter the home and slink around, until Borgman turns to them and tells them they’ve arrived too early. The dogs then turn around and slink out. But Marina has noticed and her suspicions only grow deeper … and more illogical.

As odd and surreal the film might feel, van Warmerdam presents no heavy-handed, stylized lighting but rather a subtle interplay of light and shadow and sparing, outstanding details, like some sly Lynch-like heavy blue drapes in the couple’s bedroom or the zigzag pattern of the wallpaper in the family’s living room. The focus is always clear and sustained in deep focus. Camera movements and framing never seem to distract, daring the viewer to try to pay attention to deliberately borgman3staged medium shots for some hint of the out-of-the-ordinary. Yet Borgman feels like a rather ordinary film littered with matter-of-fact details that could turn and reveal some dark abyss the human mind was never programmed to understand. When the group of intruders put on a ballet in the home’s backyard, the family has grown uncomfortably cozy with these characters, suspending judgment to the amateurish show that features the men in tutus, yet still wearing slacks and sneakers.

So what does this all mean, many will wonder? There is a powerful allusion to Richard’s racism, and the family’s insulation from the outside world stands out. The director, who also wrote the script, seems to toy with the idea of evil as a rather banal force. He deconstructs the notion of civility in upper class suburbia by introducing the troupe of domestic intruders to this complacent family. Standing as testament to how warped the family may be is the actions of the children, who are shuffled off to school in the morning, given treats at dinner and then put to bed with story-time by the nanny. Borgman soon takes over the task, offering his own bedtime story where he tells them about “the white child above the clouds” and an ever-growing monster in a lake below. And its the youngest girl’s behavior that will probably be most remembered as the most disturbing actor in the film’s ever-twisting path into darkness.

The intrusion of this man is so far from other home invasion films. Forget about comparisons to Haneke or those dumb stalker movies from Hollywood. There’s a smart implication of an evil beyond individuals involved here. It’s metaphysical, and it will crawl under your skin.

Hans Morgenstern

Borgman runs 113 minutes is in English and Dutch with English subtitles and is not rated (however, expect disturbing behavior and nudity). It opens in South Florida on June 20 at Miami Beach Cinematheque and July 4 at the Lake Worth Playhouse in Lake Worth. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here. DrafthouseFilms provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)