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DVD Review: Two South American Films


DVD Review: Two South American Films

Reviews by by Diane McCurdy

Embrace the Serpent is one of those esoteric foreign films that doesn’t grace local screens for very long because its appeal focuses on a specific artsy audience. If one is interested in this genre, these pieces are most easily accessed retroactively on DVD or streaming devices. From Colombia, this film is subtitled featuring German and Spanish and myriad indigenous languages and filmed almost entirely in black and white. These are things that should be the kiss of death. However, it is a strangely engrossing tale. It has to do with colonialism, unscrupulous rubber barons and modern society’s quest for glory and greed at the expense of the “old ways” which stayed close to nature. 

Loosely based on the lives of two actual scientists we follow them as they travel down the Amazon River in Colombia. One explorer is from the distant past, the other from the near past. Both expeditions are led by the same native guide. We see the guide first as reticent, angry and young and then as a still angry but jaded, older man. The audience experiences the parallel adventures as one is inter-spliced with the other. Both seek an elusive, mysterious plant but for very different reasons. The most striking segment deals with a mission settlement that the adventurers encounter as they journey downstream. The first visit exposes us to a stern and cruel priest who scolds and whips his native charges if they attempt to recapture bits and pieces of their own culture. Fifty years later when the second expedition ventures close to the mission they are actually abducted and observe that it has devolved into some kind of bizarre, James Jones satanic cult far removed from anything Christian. Chaos and madness prevail. It is a truly frightening progression.

An aura of evil also pervades the second film which was Chile’s submission for Best Foreign Film category in this year’s Oscar race. I didn’t like best picture winner, Spotlight, because I wanted more psychological insight into the warped brains of the pedophile priests. In The Club I got more than what I wanted. The script recounts in pornographic detail exactly what was going on in their warped minds, explicitly. Four disgraced priests and a nun who tends to them live a not terribly penitential life in a seaside cottage. They race their adored greyhound and with his winnings they buy booze. They are comfortable in their little dysfunctional family setting. Their peace is disturbed by the addition of a new member who is taunted by one of his now adult victims. He summarily puts a bullet through his head which alerts the Vatican. Promptly the Holy See dispatches a stern and pragmatic Jesuit to investigate exactly what is going on. He pours their wine down the drain and tells them to get rid of their dog. He interviews and records each person as they confess their sins, graphically. I can’t comment on how it ends because the dialog at this point was too vile and repugnant. I couldn’t take it. I turned it off.

The Embrace of the Serpent is not a particularly happy piece but the depravity it displays is easier to watch because it is not so hypocritical. As far as the The Club is concerned, consider yourself warned.