DRAMA; 2hr 1min (Spanish with subtitles)
STARRING: Carmiña Martínez, José Accosta, Natalia Reyes
The covenant of family is the living seam and the spilled blood in Embrace of the Serpent husband-and-wife co-directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s history of a pre-Escobar, dope-dealing flameout in the wilds of Northern Colombia. Fact-inspired, spanning the 1960s to the ’80s and sunk to its hilt in the timeless spirituality of the Guajira Desert’s native Wayuu people, the narrative kicks off on a relatively innocent note: To raise a seemingly impossible dowry for his marriage to sultry Zaida (Reyes), fixated suitor Rapayet (Acosta) strikes a deal with his cousin to sell 50 kilos of marijuana to a clueless group of American Peace Corps volunteers.
Beam them up and up: it’s no spoiler that by the 1970s, business is booming. Rapayet and his BFF business partner, Moisés (Jhon Narváez), are raking in the pesos. But it’s also hardly headline news that the path of big-time dealing never did run smooth, either onscreen or off. Moisés is a hot-headed menace and a behavioural threat to the matriarchal Wayuu, whose spiritual traditions—in which birds loom mythically large—belie their newfound sense of flinty business purpose. “I’m capable of anything for my family and my clan,” cool-customer doyenne (and Zaida’s dowry-setting mother) Úrsula (Martinez) remarks early on. She isn’t making small talk.
Blending actors with non-professionals to uneven but earthy effect, Guerra and Gallego observe the chaos of death begetting death with studied calm. That their immoderate wealth imprisons the warring family cliques—and that they were so much freer when they had relatively nothing—isn’t a ground-breaker. What cuts deepest, in an undoing heavy with the casualties of revenge, is that there is no going back to the ease of its beginning.