Director: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 125 Minutes
Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra team up to put together a special film about culture, tradition and the poison of power. With a richness in indigenous living and a dangerous slice of cartel violence, Birds of Passage is a unique mash up of Dances With Wolves and Narcos, combined to create a beautifully dangerous history lesson.
The Wayuu people are a native ethnic group from the Guajira Peninsula on the Venezuela-Colombia border. During the 1960s and ’70s a number of families on the Colombian side got deeply involved in an illegal drug trade, delivering large sums of marijuana to American partners. This is their harrowing story.
After Rapayet (José Acosta) wins over Zaida (Natalia Flores) in a traditional dance celebrating Zaida’s womanhood, he sets out to obtain a hefty dowry in order to seal the marriage proposal. With the help of his alijuna friend (an alijuna is an outsider to the Wayuu, a person belonging to the unfavorable modern world), Rapayet forms a business that links his cousin’s marijuana farm with American investors. The dowry is collected with ease and a new, prosperous and deadly Wayuu family is born.
Zaida has a dream early on that her mother Ursula (Carmiña Martinez) interprets as a warning of the danger that is to come. Ursula has the ability of “speaking to the dreams.” She constantly warns Rapayet and loved ones of breaking Wayuu values and displeasing the spirits.
But money and power are like Novocain to the soul, numbing the family’s feelings of integrity. Big business comes to rule; pistols are wedged in every man’s trousers; and the honorary tradition that holds peace among the tribe anticipates its end.
As racketeering bleeds into the ancestral ways, Rapayet dividedly stands between the two clashing worlds. He may be firm in honoring Wayuu customs, but he misses the bigger picture, that is, earning a living through legitimate means.
A role as heavy as Rapayet’s demands a stronger personality than the one we receive. What would Scarface be with a lifeless Al Pacino mumbling, “Say hello to my little friend,” under his breath? The film lacks excitation due to stale acting from a large group of non-actors. Although some, like Jhon Narváez as Moisés, steep into their roles and provide emotional flavor.
As the self-created plague runs over the families, some haunting images set the film’s ruinous tone, such as Zaida’s cautionary dreams wherein faces are covered with sheets blowing hard in the wind, caskets full of armament pulled from graves, a contemporary mansion standing alone in the middle of the desert, and Rapayet squatting by a slaughtered group of Wayuu. Telling images meet with an eerie original score and a self-foreseeing script to conjure up a memorable large-scale nightmare.
By witnessing the corruption and collapse of tribal beauty, Birds of Passage delivers a cry out to modern man that we have lost our way, much like Guerra and Gallego’s 2015 collaboration Embrace of the Serpent. Pitting indigenous living against modern civilization raises obvious concerns regarding the alijuna lifestyle and priorities. Most importantly and impressively, Birds averts preachiness and artfully delivers cultural introspection.
We are won over by the film’s originality and substance. The abundance of Wayuu heritage characterizes Birds as a soulful film and separates it from any cartel cinema or TV shows today. The simple homes with sleeping hammocks, the creative and colorful clothing and handbags, the face paint, the meaningful song and dance, the people’s strong attention to dreaming, the deep involvement with the spirit world…it’s a wonderful tribute and a quick lesson on a magnificent culture that you will not soon forget.
Birds of Passage would have reached another level with professional actors, but the story, cultural immersion, and image are more than enough to make this one satisfying show.