Foreign films highlight magical realism and a treasure hunt

A scene from "Embrace of the Serpent." —Photo by Andres Córdoba

Foreign-language films from Colombia and Bulgaria headline the schedule this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Set in the Amazon jungles of Colombia, “Embrace of the Serpent” follows two scientists seeking a flower with curative powers. In “The Treasure,” two Bulgarians hunt for a cache of gold and gems.

“Embrace of the Serpent,” an Oscar nominee that won a director’s award at Cannes, combines realism with fantasy in the best tradition of magic realism. Filmed in breathtakingly beautiful black and white, it builds its fictional plot around two actual ethnographers who investigated indigenous Amazon tribes. Theodor Koch-Grünberg from Germany traveled in the Amazon in the early 20th century, and wrote about his work there. American biologist Richard Evans Schultes, considered the father of modern ethnobotany, visited the Amazon in search of the same hallucinogenic flower that Dr. Koch-Grünberg sought 30 years earlier.

Director Ciro Guerra draws from the lives of these two men to construct his tale of the clash between primitive and modern cultures. The viewer first meets a gravely ill Theo (Jan Bijvoet) in 1909. His guide and companion Manduca (Yuaenku Migue) brings him by boat to the shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), the only one who can lead him to the rare yakruna flower that can cure his malaria. But Karamakate, whose tribe has been decimated by rubber barons and missionaries, has little affection for white men.

The story of Theo and Karamakate’s relationship is interwoven with that of a second scientist, Evan (Brionne Davis), who continues the search for the yakruna flower decades later. Evan meets an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar), who has lost the ability to dream or remember. Even though his memories are gone, Karamakate agrees to help Evan find the sacred flower. The explorations of both men take the viewer through breathtaking jungle vistas and fantastical visions. In each case, the film’s perspective comes from Karamakate, his world, and his customs. While other films, like Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” or Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” examine colonization in its most destructive form, they proceed from the point of view of modern cultures. “Embrace of the Serpent” gives precedence to the values of a culture that many would consider primitive. The effect is both fascinating and haunting.

‘The Treasure’

Corneliu Porumbiou’s droll satire takes on greed in post-Communist Bulgaria. Goodhearted but clueless Costi (Toma Cuzin) is reading the story of Robin Hood to his son when his neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) comes to the door. Before long, the two are embroiled in a harebrained scheme to dig up a pot of gold in the backyard of Adrian’s country house. Adrian’s grandfather may have buried it there when the Communists took over. Without knowing exactly where they might find the elusive and possibly imaginary jackpot, the two hire a metal detector company to help. Much metal-detector buzzing and furious digging proceed. Along the way, “The Treasure” does a good job of both illustrating and skewering Bulgarian society. The moral of the story is that greed exists among the denizens of any country.

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