×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Birds of Passage’

A south-of-the-border drug epic like you've never seen before, in which illegal trafficking poisons an indigenous Wayuu clan.

Director:
Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra
With:
Carmiña Martínez, Jose Acosta, Jhon Narváez

2 hours 5 minutes

These days, with “Narcos” on Netflix and “Loving Pablo” in theaters, South American drug stories are a dime a dozen — or, maybe, 10 bucks a bag — but you’ve never seen one like “Birds of Passage,” a visually stunning and often surprising true story that charts the rise of the Colombian drug business back before Escobar from its unexpected roots, among an indigenous clan in way over their heads. Matching its artistic vision in anthropological value, this fresh take on a familiar genre — told from the point of view of the country’s Wayuu people — marks an ambitious follow up to the Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent” for helmer Ciro Guerra and his wife, producer Cristina Gallego.

Over the course of four features together, Guerra and Gallego have gone a long way to represent native experiences otherwise undocumented on film, but “Birds of Passage” marks the first time they have shared directing credit — perfectly fitting for a film where the female characters hold real power over the men. Here, local matriarch Ursula Pushaina (Carmiña Martínez) emerges as the film’s strongest character, like the indigenous equivalent of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ “Cocaine Godmother.” “Do you know why I am respected?” the imposing character asks her future son-in-law (Jose Acosta) early on. “Because I am capable of anything for my family and clan.” By the end of the film, we’ll see just how far she’s willing to go.

Acosta plays a cocky young bachelor named Raphayet, who makes it known that he’s interested in marrying Ursula’s daughter — and newly eligible bachelorette — Zaida (Natalia Reyes) at a dazzling Wayuu courtship ritual known as the yonna, a traditional dance in which a woman, wrapped head-to-toe in a billowing red blanket, chases her male partner while making exaggerated bird-like movements. This is but one dimension of the film’s title, which hints at the superstitious significance the Wayuu put on their avian companions — a recurring motif throughout the movie, as human characters look to the winged creatures as a kind of omen or spirit at various points. Locals also use the expression “birds of passage” to describe the drug runners who come and go like migrating species, looking out only for themselves, and leaving serious damage and violence in their wake.

Although the Wayuu live in Guajira, a resource-rich desert region in northern Colombia, they don’t benefit from the local mining and commercial interests. Instead, the Wayuu fend for themselves, much as they have for centuries before the alijuna (or outsiders) appeared, drawing arbitrary borders and imposing rules that have little relevance to the indigenous population. Longstanding tensions between the natives and newcomers make it easy for the Wayuu to justify breaking laws at the alijunas’ expense — as Raphayet does by agreeing to help a couple of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers (hippies with no idea the damage their desire for weed will wreak on the native community) score a bunch of marijuana, counting on the errand to earn him enough to afford Zaida’s dowry.

In fact, it pays so well that Raphayet and his buddy Moises (Jhon Narvaez) go into steady business selling marijuana to the Americans — though never anything harder than grass. That doesn’t seem to be an issue for Ursula or any of the family members until Moises goes rogue in the middle of a deal and shoots a couple of foreigners. Listening to the English-speaking actors’ stilted line delivery, one realizes that the film is better cast than it is acted, pairing professionals in the lead roles with a memorable ensemble of toothless and sun-ravaged amateurs, whose eccentric looks and slightly awkward body language serve to distinguish the film from more generic drug opuses.

Composed as five discrete chapters over the devastating two-decade stretch between the 1960s and ’80s — a period known as “la Bonanza Marimbera” when narco trafficking thrived in the region — “Birds of Passage” holds its own as a mythic addition to a seemingly boundless canon of drug-trafficking tales, fueled by violence, avarice and the constant threat of bloody reprisal. This epic tragedy begins from a place of naive innocence and builds to a full-blown war between two rival factions, and yet, Gallego and Guerra construct the film with such a deep interest in and respect for the indigenous culture that the drug element is but the window through which they view this endangered way of life.

Marijuana may as well be a metaphor for any outside influence on such an enclave, as the filmmakers use the high-stakes business to demonstrate how modern temptations of all kinds threaten to pull the Pushaina clan away from their ancient, honor-driven system of customs and rituals. Few films have captured quite so powerfully the tension between the old and new worlds — a feat “Birds of Passage” accomplishes while simultaneously allowing audiences to channel the Wayuu’s surrealistic view of their surroundings, where spirits walk the earth, and wise women interpret their dreams.

Whereas “Embrace of the Serpent” luxuriated in period-appropriate black-and-white, “Birds of Passage” practically erupts with color. Coupled with an immersive sound design — in which a steady background of insect noises blends seamlessly with the otherworldly vibration of unfamiliar instruments — the super-saturated visuals give the entire experience a heightened, hallucinatory quality, as if fellow South American director Alejandro Jodorowsky had applied his trippy sensibility to something of genuine ethnographic significance. South-of-the-border drug stories may be nothing new, but this one stands apart, taking on an almost folkloric dimension as it tracks the potential demise of an entire people.

Film Review: 'Birds of Passage'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight — opener), May 9, 2018. Running time: 125 MIN. (Original title: “Pájaros de verano”)

Production: A Ciudad Lunar, Blond Indian Films, Pimienta Films, Films Boutique, Snowglobe production, in association with Caracol TV, Dago García, Cinecolombia, Bord Cadre Films, Labo Digital, EFD. (International sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Producers: Katrin Pors, Cristina Gallego. Co-producers: Jean Christophe Simon, Nicolas Celis, Sebastián Celis, Sandino Saravia Vinay, Mikkel Jersin, Eva Jakobsen, Carlos E. García, Maria Ekerhovd, Jamal Zeinal Zade, Dan Wechsler.

Crew: Directors: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra. Screenplay: María Camila Arias, Jacques Toulemonde; story: Gallego. Camera (color): David Gallego. Editor: Miguel Schverdfinger. Music: Leonardo Heiblum.

With: Carmiña Martínez, Jose Acosta, Jhon Narváez, Natalia Reyes, Jose Vicente Cots, Juan Martínez, Greider Meza. (Wayuunaiki, Spanish, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Gone With the Wind Screening

    Film News Roundup: 'Gone With the Wind' Sets Event Cinema Record

    In today’s film news roundup, “Gone with the Wind” sets a new record, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” is acquired, and Tracy Oliver signs with Topic Studios. EVENT CINEMA RECORD More Reviews Film Review: ‘Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn’ Sara Bareilles Premieres New Songs, Declares Love for Obama at Intimate L.A. Show The 80th anniversary [...]

  • Made in Abyss - Journey’s Dawn

    Film Review: ‘Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn’

    It’s a Herculean effort to take a multi-volume manga like author Akihito Tsukushi’s “Made in Abyss,” adapt it into a popular anime television series, and then compress the show into a coherent feature (technically, two movies), but the folks at Sentai Filmworks have done just that. Part one, “Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn,” will screen [...]

  • HAF: 'Assassination,' 'Apprenticeship' Named Project Market

    HAF: 'Assassination,' 'Apprenticeship' Named Project Market Winners

    Eighteen prizes were presented on Wednesday afternoon at the closing ceremony of the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum. The project market sits alongside FilMart as part of the Entertainment Expo in Hong Kong. “Wong Tai Sin Assassination” to be directed by Wong Hoi and produced by Derek Kwok Tsz-kin, was named the winner of [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild Makes Concession on Film Financing in Agent Talks

    The Writers Guild of America has made a concession in film financing in its negotiations with Hollywood talent agents — the second in six weeks of talks. WGA West executive director David Young said Wednesday that it had made a “significant move” toward reaching a deal with the Association of Talent Agents for a revamped [...]

  • Noah Centineo He-Man

    Noah Centineo to Play He-Man in 'Masters of the Universe' Reboot

    From a boy (who’s loved) to He-Man. Noah Centineo is in talks to take on the superhero in Sony Pictures and Mattel Films’ “Masters of the Universe.” More Reviews Film Review: ‘Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn’ Sara Bareilles Premieres New Songs, Declares Love for Obama at Intimate L.A. Show Brothers Adam and Aaron Nee are [...]

  • Disney Fox Takeover Placeholder

    Disney, Fox Employees Grapple With Day One Transition on Two Hollywood Lots

    What kind of a boss will Disney be? That’s a question facing employees at 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, National Geographic Partners, FX Networks, and other assorted parts of Rupert Murdoch’s former media empire. Wednesday was their first full day as staffers of the Walt Disney Co. and the initial moves have done little to [...]

  • Derek Tsang Hong Kong actor Derek

    'Better Days' Director Derek Tsang Lands in World Cinema Spotlight

    Hong Kong actor-director Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang has recently found himself in the spotlight of the world of cinema, but for the wrong reason. Tsang will be joining a Hong Kong filmmakers panel at FilMart on Thursday with Sunny Chan (“Man on the Dragon”) and Pang Ho-cheung (“Love in a Puff”). The 39-year-old filmmaker was expecting [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content