Wesley R. Ball’s review published on Letterboxd:
Colombia's Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film of 2015, Embrace of the Serpent is a mesmerizing homage to classic adventure films of the 1940's and 50's like The African Queen and Africa Screams. The plot sways back and forth between a botanist's expedition to find a fabled plant and the tale of the explorer who found it years before. Based on the diaries of two real-life explorers who inspired the film, Embrace of the Serpent is rife with thematic undertones from Werner Herzog. A similar stylistic eye for nature's beauty can be found here, and the cinematography is stunning in a similar fashion.
Director Ciro Guerra takes us on a spellbinding journey through the winding Amazon river, and with a skeleton crew and minimal budget, tells a fascinating tale of honor, deception, and ultimately greed. There is a fascinating clash of worlds that takes place throughout the story, the primitive nature of the tribal amazonians is put under the microscope for a time, but I feel that Guerra didn't take this opportunistic story to its fullest potential. Instead, he chooses to strictly focus on the journey at hand, very rarely taking a chance to examine the complications between two very different people. Even so, it doesn't bother me to a large extent, I loved that this ended more as a tribute to classic deep Africa adventure films, with some subtle psychological undertones in the plot. What we get is a truly unique experience that can only be described as supremely palpable.
Unlike other adventure films, Embrace of the Serpent made me feel like I was dirty. It made me feel like I was sweating. Like I had been traversing the South American jungles for weeks on end. The gorgeous black and white cinematography heralds back to the old days of cinematic adventures, but that didn't stop the film from pulling me in and making me feel like I was actually part of the action. The amount of immersion that this film put on me as I was watching was outstanding to me, and Ciro Guerra truly achieves a sort of transcendence of cinema that I've never felt before. The intense suspense rushed within me when the right moments came, as if I was right in the middle, facing the hostile natives and trials our characters face. For a film to simultaneously captivate a classic cinematic adventure feeling while also making the audience feel as if they are actually there with the other characters is a genuinely unique achievement that I've never had the pleasure of experiencing before today. I would recommend this film on the sheer immersion factor alone, despite having so many other fantastic qualities about it (the most memorable to me being the jaw dropping black and white).
Son of Saul undoubtedly earned its Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year. But if there had been a runner up I needed to choose, Embrace of the Serpent would have certainly been my first choice. The film has a seamless flow between two eras to tell a story and its history, shown through some fantastic cinematography; and gives a classic 1940's adventure film feeling to its atmosphere. The film provides a truly unique sensory experience that makes you feel as if you're actually there with the characters, getting physically dirty and hot in the humid African jungle. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully shot films of 2015, and a stellar love letter to adventure films of old, unlike anything you've ever seen before.