If the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film was decided on the strength of opening weekend box office receipts, Oscilloscope’s fresh opener from Colombia, Embrace Of The Serpent, would have it in the bag.
With a U.S. debut weekend of $62,164 for a $16,985 per-screen average, Ciro Guerra’s film has taken more at its opening than any of the other nominees did when they launched. Oscilloscope is bullish about its chances at crossing favorite Son Of Saul’s overall grosses and landing north of $1M. The press blast on the numbers put it bluntly in the subject line: “Watch out Son Of Saul.”
Guerra attributes this success to audiences’ spiritual curiosity. The movie tracks two timelines for a native man—the only survivor of an Amazonian tribe wiped out by rubber barons—as he leads two white explorers across the jungle. Speaking to AwardsLine this weekend, Guerra said he felt the movie had struck a chord. “It has connected so deeply with so many different audiences across the world. Certainly the Oscar nomination helped people to discover it, but there’s something deeper going on, [and] it seems a lot of people are interested in the spiritual; in looking for other ways to be human.”
The world is in crisis, he said. “I feel that there is so much hate and xenophobia rising, and a lot of people are being somewhat tired of modern society and are now more open to listening to other ways of understanding the world. It’s about rethinking the future and understanding that this traditional knowledge, that has been for so long neglected and reduced to folklore, actually has something to say to us right now.”
Guerra shot his film on location in the Colombian Amazon, a task that makes The Revenant feel like a stroll in the woods. “If you go against a place like the Amazon, it can destroy you immediately,” he said. Guerra worked with local tribes on the ground, and features many of them in his film.
“We’d heard the stories about other jungle films that had been hell to shoot and we were really prepared. Most importantly, we decided that we weren’t going to try to bring the logic of a foreign production into the Amazon. We were going to adapt ourselves into the logic of the place. We had the help and the spiritual guidance of the indigenous communities. Not only did they become an integral part of the crew and cast, but they taught us how to work with the jungle, not against it. We were very respectful of the place, we asked for its permission, and we felt the jungle was helping us to make the film.”
The film adds 20 new screens this weekend across both coasts. It’s a worthy big screen experience, with rich black-and-white photography by David Gallego. Guerra can’t easily sum up his creative decision to desaturate the vibrant rainforest, but he said it started with the images captured by the early 20th Century explorers that inspired the characters in the film. “What you see in these images—which are black and white photographic plaques—is an Amazon completely devoid of all this exuberance and exoticism. It feels like a different world and a different time speaking to you through these images. It’s not really possible to accurately portray the colors of the Amazon on any kind of film or photo. I thought maybe the audience could imagine those colors, and it could be a trigger for their imagination.”
The director hopes his film—and its barnstorming success this weekend—will charge those who see it with a desire to hear the native communities that were all but silenced by the arrival of settlers and rubber barons. “The best way to act now is to give the indigenous people ownership over their land and allow them to make their own decisions about their present and future.” Embrace of the Serpent, he said, is an experience through their eyes. “When I sit there in the dark, that’s what I’m asking for: to be taken, enraptured and transformed. Today, a lot of movies are essentially [like] other movies that were done before. But cinema can also be about life—it can be life—and there’s an audience out there looking for that.”