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INTERVIEW: Ciro Guerra, Writer/Director Of Oscar-Nominated ‘Embrace Of The Serpent’

The Colombian filmmaker talked with our critic about his films, what makes for great cinema, the amazing locations in 'Serpent', his Oscar experience and more

Ciro Guerra is having a good month. The Colombian-born filmmaker recently attended his first Oscar ceremony, where his newest film, “Embrace Of The Serpent,” was nominated in the foreign language category (it lost to “Son Of Saul”). Beyond being a personally momentous occasion for the young writer/director, who celebrated his 35th birthday in February, the Academy Award nomination was the first ever for his native country.

Describing his experience at the ceremony as “quite fun and quite crazy” during our interview on Skype, he says the Academy made them feel welcome and that he was thankful to meet so many people in the industry he’s admired for a long time. “We we’re kind of relieved we didn’t win,” he said. “There was a favorite going in and it’s great not to be the favorite. It can be a lot of pressure. Even winning can be a lot of pressure. So we just made the best of it and enjoyed it.”

I really can’t praise “Embrace Of The Serpent” enough. It’s one of those films that captures the imagination with a grip that doesn’t loosen until the credits have ended. Make sure to seek out the film when it opens exclusively this Friday at Living Room Theaters. Its two-pronged narrative ping-pongs back and forth (sometimes in the same unbroken take) between events 40 years apart in the life of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people. He encounters and travels with two scientists, one inspired by the other to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant. (While by no means a “true story,” much of the film is inspired by the diaries of German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American Richard Evans Schultes)

The black and white visuals, druggy hallucination sequences, performances, and a killer soundtrack—ancient tribal music mixed with the natural cacophony of the jungle—all make for an incredibly immersive, funny and beautiful rumination on dying, colonialism and being the last of one’s kind. It’s truly a film to go get lost in at the cinema.

Guerra, whose previous film, “The Wind Journeys,” is also highly recommended (I was able to rent the DVD at Movie Madness in fact), was generous with his time over Skype, talking with me for more than 40 minutes. Suffice to say it was fairly in depth, focusing mostly on his latest film and his work overall, but also making room to talk about what makes for great cinema (you know, the kind you see at an actual movie theater), the gorgeously epic Amazonian locations where they shot ‘Serpent’, and much more. Below are a few excerpted highlights from our chat. If you’d like to hear the entire interview, you can do so by streaming or downloading the embedded podcast below.


one of many memorable images from “Embrace of the Serpent”

“Embrace Of The Serpent” is filled with so many great, memorable cinematic sequences. In particular, the moment when you link both storylines from different time periods in one fluid take.

In the early versions of the script, it was a very Western script in the way everything was explained and all the dates and locations were perfectly clear. Then I started working with the Amazonian people, and I realized their conception of time is completely different. Film is essentially a medium of time. That’s the clay we work on with cinema, it’s made up of fragments of time. I realized what would make the movie special and unique would be that it was told from that perspective. And that included this different understanding of time, that time is not a linear sequence, which is how we are taught to experience it. Amazonian people, and shamans especially, see it more as a simultaneous multiplicity. Which is funnily extremely close to the way quantum physicists define time.

So I wanted the film to be an expression of that. In Amazonian storytelling past, present and future intertwine and dialogues mirror each other. As the process of research went on the film became more and more imbued with this Amazonian spirit and way of storytelling. So I thought if we could create links between different times, to make them appear to be simultaneous, it would be close to the spirit of the Amazonian people. 

So the idea for the two-pronged narrative, is that also how that came about? To put the audience in the mindset of Karamakate? 

Yes. The main thing about the film is that the point of view is from the shaman. This story has usually been told from the explorers’ point of view. So we really needed to flip the story on its head. When you switch the point of view you realize that history has been told in a very one dimensional way. I think that is something cinema can do. It really can make you experience the world from a particular perspective. The perspective of Amazonian people is very difficult for us to understand and get into it. This film is an attempt to build a bridge between the storytelling that we know and can understand, and their storytelling which for us at first can be incomprehensible. This film needed to be accessible for anyone. It would have been dishonest to make this a cryptic film for a small [art film] niche.


“Embrace Of The Serpent”

Watching the film is an incredibly immersive sensory experience. I think that’s really important for cinema today. Since most people are happy to watch everything on their TVs, computers or phones, it’s more important than ever that a film deserves to be up on a big screen to get people out of their house and going to the theater. “Embrace Of The Serpent” is truly a big movie and belongs there. 

I agree totally with you. I think the cinema should be an experience. The effect that cinema can have on the senses is something I think no other art form can come close to it. For me it’s always very important that the films… that you can really feel where you are. They have a strong sense of place. And the tools of cinema allow you to do that, to put you in there.

The sound design and overall look of the film is incredible. Can you talk about some of those sensorial elements and how you conceived and executed them? 

The sound design is the creation of Carlos García, a brilliant sound designer. We had this concept of creating a trance-like state through the sound. Using the sounds of nature and its frequencies in a way that would take the viewer in a trance like, or a spiritual state. It’s the state that Amazonian people use to tell their stories. You are sort of elevated by the sound. You do that only using the frequencies of the natural environment. That creates a feeling that can only be experienced completely in a cinema.

The look of the film [cinematography by David Gallego] is inspired by the images the explorers took during their travels. When I went there I realized it was not going to be possible to portray the colors of the Amazon on film. Especially what they mean to the people there. These are people who have 15 words for what we call green. I thought this way we could trigger the audience’s imagination. The Amazon that you see in the film is not the real one, it’s an imagined Amazon. But that imagined Amazon is certainly going to be more real than what we could portray.

“Embrace Of The Serpent” opens at Friday March 11 at Portland’s Living Room Theaters. Advance tickets are available now. 

Celluloid Resurgence: Film is not dead after all

The unique release of Christopher Nolan's epic space tale "Interstellar" has our critic reevaluating the digital vs. film divide.

Actual, physical celluloid has been on the endangered species list for more than a decade. Surely you’ve already heard about it. Death to cinema they’ve been saying! Digital projection, “that’s just TV in public,” says Quentin Tarantino. You know, typical over-the-top, sky-is-falling bloviating from the sometimes tragically nostalgic cinephile crowd. Admittedly, I am one of them, but these days find myself more in the middle of this seismic change in movies. When a situation is this complex, it’s the best place to be. It’s where optimism is earned.


However, before satisfaction would be mine… first things first: Christopher Nolan has a new film out, called “Interstellar.” You’ve no doubt heard about this too. Nolan is one of a handful of big name directors whose name even average moviegoers know. His place in the pantheon of great modern auteurs is well-earned. He consistently makes good, sometimes great, cinema (there’s even a masterpiece or two in his filmography). He is a bastion for going out to the movies, no mere conjurer of cheap tricks but one who instills all his work with honest-to-goodness movie magic.

I’d love to wax-poetic about “Interstellar” (believe me, I really could), but that’s not what I’m here to do (besides, everyone and their mother has already reviewed the damn thing, so there’s plenty of opinions to sift through). In short—set your hyperbole and critic-speak tolerance to high, please—I found it to be immensely enthralling and easily Nolan’s (a chilly director) most emotionally satisfying film to date. I laughed, I cried, I was honestly blown away at times. It’s a more complete, far greater accomplishment than even his last two (very good) movies, “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception.” I can’t recommend enough seeing it on the biggest screen possible, to take in the vastness of its vision.

The question becomes: in what format will you be seeing “Interstellar?” For those who don’t know—or much more likely just don’t care—Nolan has been a big proponent of shooting and projecting his work on film. He’s used his clout in the industry, of which he has a lot (thanks to an impressive box office run of massive hits), to ensure that folks in cities where cinemas still have working film projectors can see “Interstellar” on film, be it on the former standard 35mm or the gloriously huge 70mm IMAX. Most will see it on the new standard, DCP. In the end, all that truly matters is that people see it, feel something (good or bad) and hopefully are moved by the picture.


ELYSIUM: Just in time

Finally, right at the end of summer, a great blockbuster has arrived.


Where does he get all those wonderful toys? Matt Damon, being awesome in Elysium.

This summer at the multiplex has been disappointing. Even the movies I’ve enjoyed—“Star Trek Into Darkness,” “World War Z,” “Man of Steel”—have gotten worse upon reflection. There’s a big problem with them and the rest of the big movies this year. I have no desire to watch any of them again. I’m not saying these movies are terrible (“The Lone Ranger,” though, now that’s a disaster), just mediocre. They’re disposable. See ‘em once, like or don’t like, move on to the next one. Rinse. Repeat.

Maybe I’m just getting older. My palate (perhaps) more refined. Or maybe, just maybe, we have to admit to ourselves that the same noisy, tired and flat-out dumb product Hollywood has shoved down our throats this year ain’t up to snuff. Ask yourself: do you actually care about these movies? Even the biggest financial success of the year so far, “Iron Man 3,” will you talk fondly with your friends about it for years to come, or has it already faded from memory? Dammit, these movies can be good, even great, and if lightning is caught in the proverbial bottle, well, then you got a rare, bonafide classic.

“Elysium” is a great movie. And just in time to rescue this summer from mediocrity. Like a football coach past his prime, content with simply running the same plays that have worked for years instead of shaking up the playbook, every blockbuster filmmaker this year has executed an all-too familiar formula with hollow efficiency. Even the special effects don’t seem so special anymore. Not the case with “Elysium,” writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to the wonderful “District 9.”

That film (Blomkamp’s feature debut) was an across the board success. Liked by critics and audiences. Nominated for Oscars (including Best Picture). Strong box office. A lot of filmmakers would’ve taken a cozy franchise gig. Not Blomkamp. He certainly cashed in on the goodwill and profits made from “District 9,” but like Frank Sinatra, he did it his way. “Elysium” is an original property, lovingly referential to other films, but not a sequel, based off a toy, adapted from a comic book, TV show or novel. In our current movie climate, it stands head and shoulders above the rest as a bold, well-made, intelligent piece of science fiction action spectacle.

A brief bit of text and flashback throws us into the story. It’s set more than 100 years in the future, and Earth is overpopulated, polluted and harsh. It’s not that far off from a “Wall-E” like dystopia. Only the very rich have escaped, moving to a Kubrickean space station called Elysium where they live in a pristine, gated community environment. Even better, every house up there comes fully stocked with a machine that will cure any ailment in seconds. The rest are left to fend for themselves on Earth, working shitty jobs for low pay or turning to crime. For Blomkamp, this is what happens before the world ends. The gap between the 1% and the rest of us poor working stiffs has reached grand canyon proportions.

Blomkamp directing Damon on the set of Elysium.

Blomkamp directing Damon on the set of Elysium.

Right from the opening, it feels fresh. Here is a movie that really moves. The editing is precise, tightly coiled like a python’s grip. There’s nary a wasted moment. Blomkamp and his DP Trent Opaloch show us the world instead of telling us about it. LA, where the Earthbound section of the movie takes place, is now borderless, resources stretched far too thin, and subsumed by trash. The first language is now Spanish. Basically a Fox News watcher’s worst nightmare. As in “District 9,” the fantastical is grounded in a real environment. The actual plot is minimal and straightforward, kicking in when Max (Matt Damon) must break into the space station in order to save his own life from disease.

One gets the sense that Blomkamp has done his homework. It’s as if he’s made a checklist in the last few years, highlighting all that’s wrong with most spectacle movies these days and vowing to avoid those pitfalls. In “Elysium,” you won’t find a sluggish origin story; clunky voiceover explaining what you just saw; non-sensical, hallucinatory action without consequences; bloated run time; PG-13 rating; major cities laid to waste; one dimensional characters; or room for a sequel. This is a story with a beginning, middle and end. Nothing’s left open for a sequel. When the credits roll, the story has come to an end. It’s a weird feeling. I think… it’s… called… satisfaction?

Damon is one of our most gifted movie stars. He’s talented and chooses to work with gifted storytellers. The part may not be super flashy, but he does great work as Max, a hero who harkens back to the days of John McClane and Snake Plissken. He’s a wisecracking, tough, self-interested protagonist, doing what’s best for number one. Which makes his arc all the more satisfying. Damon’s low-key approach to the character grounds the film, giving room to the rest of the cast to have fun in smaller, showier parts.

Sharlto Copley

Remember the anti-hero from District 9? Now he’s a big baddie in Elysium.

Sharlto Copley, the anti-hero from “District 9,” shows up as a psychotic blackwater-esque private soldier. He does the bidding on Earth for Jody Foster, the head of Elysium security who’ll stop at nothing to protect it. Her performance is, surprisingly, the weakest link. She reaches for an odd, difficult to place accent that never quite comes together. But there’s plenty of great work done by the rest of the ensemble, most likely familiar to fans of world cinema: Wagner Moura, from the Brazilian “Elite Squad” films, is gravelly-voiced and pitch perfect as a criminal who aids Damon in his suicidal quest to reach Elysium, for reasons I won’t go into here. Diego Luna, best known for “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” is a breath of fresh air, adding dimension to what must have been a fairly rote character on the page. And Alice Braga, the immaculate beauty from “City of God,” is very good as the character who inadvertently spurs Damon’s redemption. I also can’t forget character actor legend William Fichtner, a welcome sight in any film as far as I’m concerned.

There is a sense that this film could have been more complex and stronger with even 15 more minutes added in. Perhaps a character from Elysium could’ve been more fleshed out, so they didn’t seem so one-note and easily unlikeable . That could have muddied the politics at play, making for an even stronger achievement. But really, this is spectacle done right, coming in under two hours (mindblowing in this day and age for big tentpole films) with plenty of kick-ass action. Because Blomkamp is unafraid to present and deal with real world problems in his massive science fiction action movie, it can be easy to forget that he’s out to entertain the audience first and foremost. To work on a canvas this big, he’s wisely chosen to keep things mostly simple, clean and relatable. It never feels like there’s an agenda at work, instead the politics can be gleaned through action and character.

And even more mind blowing is how Blomkamp convinced his financiers to let him make a hard R-rated movie with a massive budget. It seems like the studios, in their infinite wisdom, have chosen extinction for such a thing. Weird as it is to admit this, the ultra violence—bodies liquefying, exploding, bloody impalements, faces imploding— was a breath of fresh air here, showing what actually happens when people fight with weapons. It isn’t pretty, but somehow, Blomkamp films it in a way where you can’t take your eyes off the action, regardless of how brutal it gets. Just as Damon’s character harkens back to an older character type, this film seems to long for the days of Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicles, and the work of Paul Verhoeven. It mostly succeeds in capturing their spirit and wry satirical humor.

As many of you readers probably know, we rarely choose to cover big movies like this at Oregon Arts watch, instead choosing to focus our attention (and hopefully yours as well) on smaller, more obscure cinema. “Elysium,” while a bit flawed, is not only impressive compared to other movies of its ilk, it’s simply a great piece of entertainment, regardless, with near-flawless special effects, a thrilling pace and just enough sustenance. It’s well worth your time, even if you’ve given up on this summer and big Hollywood spectacles. I can’t wait to see it again.


Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday. The latest episode, AYT #74, features an in depth review of “Elysium.”

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