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‘Embrace of the Serpent’ views Colombia as the natives do

Antonio Bolivar Salvador (center) stars as old Karamakate, with Brionne Davis as the young explorer Evan, in a scene from "Embrace of the Serpent." | Oscilloscope Laboratories

In a scene from “Embrace of the Serpent,” a native Amazonian called Karamakate tells the white explorer he’s forging through the jungle to feel his surroundings with all of his senses. He scolds him after the explorer begins to check out his map and stops listening to a classical tune about the creation of the world played on an old portable turntable.

“What do you see? The world is like this, huge. But you choose to see just this,” the shaman tells him after snatching the map away from his hands and tossing it into the river. “The world speaks … Hear the song of your ancestors. This is the way you are looking for. Listen for real. Not only with your ears.”

That cosmic vision of the Amazon world is shown through the natives’ eyes in this movie that was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar. At the Feb. 28 awards, the Oscar went to “Son of Saul” of Hungary.

Ciro Guerra

Ciro Guerra

“It’s an experience that forces you to face yourself deeply. It brings you face to face with the concepts you have about the world, about life and the relationship you have with yourself and others,” said director Ciro Guerra in a recent interview conducted in Spanish.

It’s the first time that a movie from Colombia competed for an Academy Award. In 2005, the South American country celebrated the nod to Colombian actress Catalina Sandino for her leading role in “Maria Full of Grace,” but it was largely a U.S. production.

Regardless of the Oscar results, the nomination opened doors to the movie, which was re-released in Colombia and has been shown in Asian and European countries and opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre, with English subtitles.

The nomination also opened doors for Guerra, who has signed to direct the English-language dystopian adventure “The Detainee,” described as a “Hunger Games” for adults.

“It’s been a big surprise to us. We thought the movie with Amazonian languages would not appeal to the Academy, but the film has appealed to so many people around the world. It keeps surprising us. It’s a big honor,” Guerra said of the nomination.

“Embrace of the Serpent” tells the story through Karamakate, the last survivor of his tribe, who as a young man led a German explorer through the Colombian jungle and four decades later, in the twilight of his life, does the same for an American explorer. Inspired by the diaries of the first explorers of the Colombian Amazon — German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American biologist Richard Evan Schultes — the film shows the philosophical contrast between the Western world and the native’s concept of harmony.

“Indigenous knowledge has a different way of understanding everything and makes you see that the concepts of the world that we believe are fixed are not. That’s what we wanted to convey to the audience, so they can envision a world where it’s possible to live in a different way,” he said.

Guerra, 35, said he chose to do the film from the natives’ perspective because the story of the jungle had only been told in cinema through the eyes of foreigners. For instance, one of the classics about the Amazon, Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” (1982), has a white leading actor, Klaus Kinski.

This gave the project freshness and originality, Guerra said. “Then it was a very difficult process for me because this movie demanded that I stopped seeing the world, and understanding storytelling, the same way. To transport the viewers to this different frame of mind, I would have to do it myself,” he added.

“Embrace of the Serpent” was filmed in black and white, which gives the Amazon a peaceful and timeless feel without diminishing its grandeur. It is mostly spoken in native languages and also includes some Spanish.