TIFF tends to be the best opportunity all year to see several Foreign Film Oscar submissions in quick succession. The trick is you don't often know which ones they well be and sometimes, due to release dates in their home countries, they end up as submissions the following year. Last September, at this same festival for example I saw Labyrinth of Lies and Sand Dollars which are now the Oscar submissions for this year's race from Germany and The Dominican Republic.
Two days before Embrace of the Serpent was proclaimed Colombia's official submission, I attended the screening. Good luck for me and good choice for them: it's mesmerizing.
Ciro Guerra's third film wraps itself all around you with otherworldly danger. And this is not just a word choice via subliminal suggestion from the slimy encircling imagery of an enormous snake giving birth that occurs before the title. This journey film's stunning black and white photography by David Gallego (a relative newcomer!) only adds to the dreamlike visuals of the Colombian Amazon, totally transporting you into a rickety boat on the water, on two different journeys 40 years apart. The film was inspired by real life journals of explorers and both trips involve a white scientist searching for a mystical plant called Yakruna, which is said to have great healing power. Each of them take as their guide the same Amazonian shaman Karamakate who is played by as a younger man by Niblio Torres and and older man by Antonio Bolivar, neither have acted for cameras before but Karamakate in both forms has real screen presence.
The dangerous stops along the river's way angrily condemn the decimation of indigenous cultures by colonized rubber plantations and missionaries. We also get a taste of religious insanity on par with The Devils, and the jungle madness of Apocalypse Now and Aguirre the Wrath of God. And the films it recalls don't stop there. The snake birth is just one of three spectacularly trippy off-narrative sequences, the final one daring to invoke 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its psychedelic mysteries. If Embrace of the Serpent never feels wholly original as a result and only Karamakate registers as a three dimensional character, it's still an intense journey and very rewarding visual feast. This Colombian wonder won the top award at Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes earlier this summer, and could well impress Oscar voters who love a visual epic. Oscilloscope will distribute it in the States. Cross your fingers that it'll play on the biggest possible arthouse screen near you. B+/A-
Related: There have been several foreign film submissions announced while I've been festivaling it up in Toronto. So make sure to check out the updated foreign film charts.
We now have 47 official titles, with probably 20-25 more yet to be named with the biggest missing links (i.e. countries that Oscar is fond of) being Denmark, France, Israel, Poland and Spain.