Uncharted Passages: The Journeys of Embrace of the Serpent and Theeb 

"The jungle is fragile," says the sole survivor of an Amazonian tribe in the opening moments of Embrace of the Serpent. "If you attack her, it strikes back."

Two Oscar-nominees, two amazing journeys: Embrace of the Serpent (left) and Theeb (right).

Courtesy of Trigon-Film

Two Oscar-nominees, two amazing journeys: Embrace of the Serpent (left) and Theeb (right).

Embrace of the Serpent—imbued with mind-bending shades of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God and hints of Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now—treks deep into the Amazon River and even deeper into our imagination. Filmed in spellbinding black and white, the Colombian film made it onto the Oscar shortlist as one of 2015's five best foreign films and boasts an impressive 98 percent critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes (rottentomatoes.com).

"The jungle is fragile," says Karamakate—the sole survivor of an Amazonian tribe—in the opening moments of Embrace of the Serpent. "If you attack her, it strikes back."

It's all the more reason why Karamakate (a phenomenal performance from amateur Nilbio Torres) has more in common with the Amazon River and its surrounding jungle than with humankind.

Karamatakate serves as an unwilling guide to disease-stricken German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), who is searching for something called yakruna, a sacred plant with miraculous healing powers, which can only be found deep in the Amazon on a remote mountaintop. The journey across the aquatic serpent that is the Amazon River will be perilous for Karamatakate and Koch-Grunberg, but the greatest dangers lie on the river's shores, where Roman Catholic missionaries have enslaved hundreds of tribal children to do the missionaries' gruesome bidding. Dressed in white robes and singing "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful" in Latin, the children are forbidden to speak in their native language and repeatedly whipped.

Embrace of the Serpent is a film of two parallel journeys, decades apart: First, Koch-Grunberg's in 1909, with young Karamatakate as his guide and then, years later, when a much older Karamakate (portrayed by Antonio Bolivar) leads an American biologist (Brionne Davis) hoping to retrace the 1909 expedition. Ultimately, the two tales weave into a singular narrative about a search for higher ground and a meditation on cultures forever lost.

Yet another compelling journey comes in Theeb, a beautiful but violent story about a prepubescent boy living in the early 20th century during the time known as the "Arab Revolt," when Arab nationalists fought for survival against the Ottoman Empire.

In this Oscar-nominated feature film debut from writer/director Naji Abu Nowar, Theeb pays homage to master director David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia but from a non-Western-oriented viewpoint. In Nowar's film, a blond British Army officer arrives in a small desert village where orphans Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) and his two older brothers live. When the Englishman lures one of Theeb's brothers into escorting him across the desert in search of gold, Theeb disobeys his brother's orders and follows the men into the desert. The 14-year-old Al-Hwietat is a star-in-the-making and a revelation in this epic story of ill-fated colonial ambitions.

"If the wolves offer friendship, do not count on success," says a narrator. Unfortunately, determining who the real wolves are is not abundantly clear.

Both of these films contain scenes of violence. Viewer discretion is advised.

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