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Ciro Guerra’s film Embrace of the Serpent from 2015 was an audacious journey into Colombia’s dark interior, figurative and literal, a jungle full of Kurtzian fear. Now he has entered into a fascinating auteur collaboration with his longtime producer Cristina Gallego to create this really startling and intriguing movie, which was Colombia’s shortlisted entry for best foreign film in this year’s Academy Awards. It grafts quasi-ethnographic docudrama on to druglord turf war epic, mixing professional and nonprofessional actors. This is film-making that really does push at the limits of storytelling and generic templates, and it’s brimming with images and ideas.
Taking place over a timespan of about 20 years, from the 1960s to the 80s, Birds of Passage is a poetic re-imagining of the rise of Colombia’s marijuana trade in a series of five poetically conceived “songs”, entitled Wild Grass, The Graves, Prosperity, The War and Limbo. It finds its drama not in the lives of the wealthy US dealers and consumers but in those of the Colombian producers and suppliers, presenting their world in a dream-choreography.
We are used to drug-gangland movies that hinge on family and the nuances of power and generational conflict. There is a different kind of anthropology going on here, a different assessment of class, status, tribe and taboo. It is a drama of capital and empire and people whose culture has already been affected by the Spanish and is now about to be by the English-speakers of the north.
In the indigenous Wayuu tribe of La Guajira state in north-eastern Colombia, Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) is the formidable clan matriarch. (I was reminded of Mario Puzo basing the figure of Don Corleone on his mother.) She has a beautiful daughter Zaida (Natalia Reyes) and a much younger son, Leonidas (Greider Meza), who is to grow up smug, spoiled and entitled. A taciturn young man called Rapayet (José Acosta) is in love with Zaida and wishes to marry her. But there is the question of the dowry, which in this matrilineal culture must be provided by the groom, not the bride. Ursula is insisting on a lot of cows, goats and necklaces. Where on earth is Rapayet going to find the money?
The answer is – from the gringos, the hippy American Peace Corps volunteers who are handing out anticommunist leaflets and asking the locals where they can score some grass. Cool, entrepreneurial Rapayet journeys to his cousins in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada who can cultivate the weed on their remote estates; he asks for some product up front from the chieftain Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez) on a promise to return with a serious payment of US dollars. Soon a lucrative connection is set up, and he is able to marry Zaida. But his trigger-happy mate Moisés (Jhon Narváez) endangers everything, as does Leonidas. Are violence and paranoia becoming ritualistically absorbed into the culture of the Wayuu themselves?
As it happens, the factual accuracy of Birds of Passage has been challenged by Colombian and American historians who argue there is no evidence that either the Wayuu or the Peace Corps were involved in drugs. It is fair comment, although Gallego and Guerra never purported to be doing other than exercising the freest poetic licence in the service of a higher truth. This is about revelation – or hallucination. There are many ominous dreams, and dreams, to quote a character here, “prove the existence of the soul”. The set pieces are tremendous, particularly the courtship dance at the very beginning, in which suitors must lay their claim for Zaida’s hand.
There is also an extraordinary scene depicting a “second wake” in Aníbal’s property: a ceremony involving the exhumation of a dead body in a coffin, and the solemn removal of body parts while alcohol is sprayed around like holy water. Are these ceremonies accurately reported? I don’t know. But the film shows cultural expressions being intensified and warped by the new energies of the drug trade.
Birds of Passages also has conventionally shocking and tense “drug movie” scenes: people being shot, bodies being discovered. There is a bizarre sequence in which a drug meet goes sour, people are shot and Rapayet decrees that not only must people involved be given a decent, discreet burial but the drug plane must itself be broken up and buried.
If I have a criticism of Birds of Passage it is that the character of Zaida herself, so vivid and thrilling at the beginning the movie, tamely fades out almost immediately, a mute wife and mother whose relationship with Rapayet is disappointingly irrelevant. Yet there are moments of sublime mystery in this film, swooping out of the screen like the birds themselves.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Birds of Passage review – dark odyssey to the heart of the drugs trade | World cinema