As with Colombia’s Magdalena River, the alluring placidity on the surface of Nicolas Rincon Gilles’ remarkable “The Embrace of the River” conceals a fearsome, grinding violence. By beginning with a contemplation of the beliefs of people who work and live by the river — particularly their faith in the ancient, seemingly omnipotent god Mohan — Rincon Gilles film lays the context for the terrible human cost of the nation’s endless civil war. The second entry in the Colombian-born, Belgian-based filmmaker’s Campo Hablado trilogy should be a priority title for fest programmers and buyers at upscale cablers.
The opening moments establish a timeless mood, as two musicians summon forth Mohan, believed by locals to have moved from land to the Magdalena during the Spanish invasion. A protective spirit on whose particulars few can agree (one exchange shows a friendly dispute over whether Mohan is white or black), the god above all is viewed as providing the river-bank communities with fish, which is why Rincon Gille (who did his own expressive digital-video camerawork) captures so many people obsessively talking about him. And it’s why the viewer may begin to believe that there is indeed some kind of spirit underwater.
But a harsher reality seeps into the film, marking a nearly invisible shift from observational nature film to political testimonial, which makes “The Embrace of the River” something different in recent Latin American cinema. An earlier era of activist cinema would have pounded the table in outrage at the decades’ worth of massacres and collateral damage inflicted on local fishing communities; Rincon Gille simply positions his camera in front of several eyewitnesses, who emotionally and affectingly describe their experiences and loss of loved ones.
With this understated treatment, the film’s sheer beauty becomes all the more poignant and powerful, allowing viewers with no prior knowledge of Colombia’s violent past and present an entry way into what otherwise could have been a formidable work, even at a modest 72-minute running time. As with his previous “Those Waiting in the Dark,” Rincon Gille deploys a gifted production team, including Cedric Zoenen’s fluid editing and Vincent Nouaille’s engrossing sound work.