It’s so odd: Almost every year, foreign language films are among the best we see. But usually, we’re seeing films from the previous calendar year or even earlier—like the remarkable Mommy, which finished in The Boy’s top films for 2015, even though it was a 2014 film because, as he says, “I saw it in [expletive deleted] 2015, so it’s a 2015 film.”
He has a point.
But this year, we saw every single foreign film nominee prior to the ceremony (which we don’t watch, because we’re at the movies, duh), and with the exception of Mustang, they were most noteworthy in the level of disappointment they produced. Embrace of the Serpent continued that trend, meaning four out of the five nominees didn’t even make our “good” list—although The Boy is conflicted about Son of Saul, because he admires so much of the technique.
A Colombian film, Serpent aspires to, but doesn’t attain the level of Son of Saul. It’s shot in black-and-white—which was a smart choice, because the expense and expertise to do the Amazon justice in color would be staggering—but the lighting is poor, perhaps “natural”, so we don’t get the great composition out of this we might hope for. Often you can’t see one of the characters, and not in a cool way, but just in a “couldn’t-afford/didn’t-care-enough to light it properly” way.
The story runs on two parallel tracks: In the Amazon, a German explorer who has some sort of terminal disease is brought to a virulently racist native, Karamakate who angrily agrees to help him find a magic plant that will cure him. About 30 years later, another western explorer following the first one’s diary, finds the much older, possibly senile, but still racist Karamakate who (once again) agrees to help him find the magic plant.
It’s like a racist, low-key Medicine Man.
This is a popular Green conceit of course: The Brazilian forest contains infinite treasures and solutions to all our problems, so we must never go anywhere near it.
The other big element here is the rubber barons—yes, rubber—who enslaved Colombians to get at those sweet, sweet rubber tree plants, which at least is a kind of exploitation we don’t see much of in the U.S.A. In the first story, our three protagonists travel through the jungle to find Karamakate’s lost tribe (he thought they were all dead, but they apparently just moved and didn’t leave a forwarding address) and along the way meet a variety of horrible situations which they invariably make worse. Often horribly, horribly worse. Like lots of dead kids worse. (The more modern duo doesn’t fare much better.) This means that the story, while having various points of interest, tends to lose said interest as our trio bumbles through those storylines.
Now, besides being a miracle drug, the magic plant is also a rubber-plant enhancer, and also one of those mind-expanding hallucinogens the artistic community loves so well.
See if you can figure out what the problem with this is going to be, in terms of third acts. Think of every hallucinogen-oriented movie you’ve ever seen, and also 2001.
Figured it out? The end of the movie almost has to be an acid trip. Because what else justifies the labors of the Hero except spiritual enlightenment? You can’t have the plant used for purifying the Devil Rubber, and you can’t have it curing cancer, because that would help Whitey. And the problem with cinematic acid trips—much like real acid trips—is that they’re stupid. And boring to watch, to boot. Whatever chemical deception hallucinogens play on those who take them, they don’t really work on a (sober) movie audience, and so even if you’ve built up a good movie, the end is gonna be, well, stupid.
If this movie had any slack to by the end, the hero kills it by making it his mission to deny the rest of the world access to The Magic Plant. He’s not even internally consistent: Early on, when the German explorer tries to fetch back a compass so that the tribe who stole it won’t lose their native ways of navigation, Karamakate chides him for trying to control the tribe’s access to information. But I guess that’s only bad if you’re not Karamakate, who will decide for the whole world who gets what.
The vignette-ish nature of the film is such that, if you’re game (and we were), you try at each plot point to give the movie a chance, and this movie disappoints at almost every turn. You could argue that the filmmakers weren’t siding with Karamakate, of course, just revealing a mindset, but I don’t think that’s easy to support. At the point when you might think that Karamakate is the main character, and his character arc is learning to be generous toward his fellow man, the movie sorta flips and suggests it’s really about the westerner in both time periods, who may be meant to the literal reincarnation of the same person.
Disappointing year for foreign films, frankly.