Birds of Passage
2019, NR, 125 min. Directed by Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra. Starring Jose Acosta, Carmiña Martínez, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narváez, Jose Vicente Cote, Juan Martínez, Greider Meza.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 15, 2019
Drug trafficking has long been a staple of our popular storytelling. The subject is conducive to images of flashy lifestyles, abundant danger, illicit money, and morality lessons about avarice, overconsumption, and corruption. But for all our Tony Montanas and Pablo Escobars, both imagined and real, I guarantee you have never seen a drug-trafficking movie like Birds of Passage.
Set in northern Colombia during the 1960s-1980s, Birds of Passage takes place among the country’s indigenous Wayúu people. Its directors, Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, were responsible for the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent, which ingeniously intertwined the present and the past in a structurally ambitious narrative set in the Colombian Amazon. Both Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage are concerned with the effects that modern civilization has on indigenous cultures, and both films show these consequences in poetic and dreamlike fashions. Birds is not quite as magisterial as Embrace, but still brings into focus a little-seen perspective. In many ways, this new film can also be viewed for its ethnographic value, particularly in North America where the ways of the Wayúu will be revelatory to most viewers.
The film’s ethnographic pull is most prominent in the beginning. Birds opens as Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) guides her daughter Zaida (Reyes) through a ceremonial initiation into womanhood. Rapayet (Acosta) wants her for his bride, but Úrsula demands from him a large dowry. In order to obtain the money for the required calves and necklaces, Rapayet and his pal Moisés (Narváez) trade some coffee for marijuana to sell to the American hippies from the Peace Corps who are also in the territory. Their one-time deal turns into a permanent arrangement, and soon Rapayet and Moisés become well-connected with the U.S. traffickers and are shipping planeloads of pot to the States. Prosperity inevitably leads to tragedy and creates a palpable threat to the Wayúu way of life. Birds of Passage is made up of chapters called songs, and sounds of nature are heavily incorporated into the audio tracks. Birds of various types provide omens and the cicadas hint at the cycles of life, while dreams provide portents of things to come. Those hippies from the Peace Corps had no idea the amount of upheaval they would set into motion when they innocently asked around for a bit of homegrown weed.